An important lesson to remember when reading the old newspapers: all of your presumptions are probably wrong. Even the simplest news items may have a complex backstory mostly forgotten today, as is the case here. I had noticed that it was sometimes reported that boys were arrested for shooting robins, but hadn’t thought the stories noteworthy — surely the editor was filling column space on a slow day, or maybe throwing out a little civics lesson, like the Press Democrat’s stern warnings over the downtown orange peel menace. I was wrong; there was far more to the story than Peck’s Bad Boy plonking away at birds with his Daisy air rifle for the fun of it. Little Sammy Shooter might have been working for a smuggling ring in violation of federal law — or might have been seeking to feed his family.
In the 19th century, America was of three minds about robins. Farmers, particularly in the south where the birds winter, considered them a pest bird like the crow, with flocks of hundreds swooping down to strip fruit trees bare. Northeners also lost berries and fruit (cherries in particular), but were more sentimental about robins, waxing about their cheery songs and that their appearances heralded the coming of spring. Both Yanks and Johnny Reb, however, agreed that the birds were delicious.
An 1883 ag report told farmers, “the robin is eminently a game bird, and makes the most delicate and delicious eating known, almost. If, therefore, you beg the question, kill a mess for a savory pot-pie at such time as when they are in the height of their plunder, you can accomplish your purpose, and can say conscientiously that you have not violated any law for the good of the community.” And even Audubon (one of his American Robin watercolors seen at right) wrote in 1841 about the joys of cooking robins:
“In all the southern states…their presence is productive of a sort of jubilee among the gunners, and the havoc made among them with bows and arrows, blowpipes, guns, and traps of different sorts, is wonderful. Every gunner brings them home by bagsful, and the markets are supplied with them at a very cheap rate. Several persons may at this season stand round the foot of a tree loaded with berries, and shoot the greater part of the day, so fast do the flocks of Robins succeed each other. They are then fat and juicy, and afford excellent eating.”
Under pressure from the new conservation movement, turn of the century attitudes and laws began to change. The small fruit and berry crops aside, it was recognized that robins were pretty useful birds; the rest of the year they mostly ate weed seeds and harmful insects, particularly the dreaded army worm. The 1900 Lacey Act was a landmark federal law to beef up protection of wild birds, and nearly two decades later, the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act finally put strict limits on killing birds like the robin.
Shamefully, some conservationists played race, regional, and class cards to drum up support for protection. A 1902 League of American Sportsmen author wrote, “no Northern man thinks of shooting a robin at any time. Yet in the South, white man and negro alike slaughter these innocent and beautiful birds at every opportunity.” And although robin pot pie was a favorite dish throughout the south, the 1912 National Conservation Congress sensationalized it as ethnic threat:
How many people in the North know that the negroes and poor whites of the South annually slaughter millions of valuable insect-eating birds for food? Around Avery Island, Louisiana, during the robin season (in January when the berries are ripe), Mr. B. A. Mcllhenny says that during ten days or two weeks, at least 10,000 robins are each day slaughtered for the pot. “Every negro man and boy who can raise a gun is after them!”
But even though California had officially removed robins as a game bird in 1897, that didn’t stop hunters with a taste for robin pie. A letter from an ornithological club in Santa Cruz complained bitterly that the law was useless as long as those hicks around San Jose couldn’t control their appetites: “we cannot protect birds in this county when they can shoot across the line from the other county into ours…[as long as] that last relic of barbarism, robin pot-pie, is still existent in some households where they choose to believe that no protective ordinance was ever passed.”
Robin hunting continued to be an issue for years, with seven states — Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Maryland — keeping the robin legally as a game bird. Pennsylvania continued to allow robins to be killed between May and July into the 1920s “to protect cherries and other small fruits,” although the permit allowed for the birds to be used for “food purposes.”
Amazingly, no specific recipe for robin pot pie currently could be found on the Internet (yes, I also searched for variant spellings of “robin pot-pie”, “robin potpie”, and “robin pie”). Hints were found that it could have been similar to this 1897 blackbird pie, this 1886 pigeon pie, or this 1906 “pie of small birds.” Those recipes are essentially all meat baked in a crust; if this really was a food for the poorest people, it’s likely other ingredients were added to stretch out the meat, and was probably more similar to this 1874 cottage pie recipe, heavy with mashed potatoes and onions. But it’s also noteworthy that many sources mention robin pie as a favorite dish of young people; I wonder if shooting robins became a means of introducing children to the culture of hunting for food, with mommy serving their kill in a meat-heavy dish as a reward.
Finally: note below the inspector who seized the smuggled birds was named Vogelsang (“bird song”).
(Story update available here)
KILLED ROBINS AND IS WANTED
Shipped Birds to San Francisco Under Brand of Dried Apples
A box of robins which had been shipped from Sebastopol to San Francisco by D. Cassassa, was seized by Chief Deputy Charles A. Vogelsang in San Francisco Saturday morning. The shipping tag declared the contents of the box to have been dried apples, and as such the railroad had given a special fruit rate to the shipper. The tag contained the name of D. Cassassa as the shipper.
There were about half a hundred robins in the box, and they were consigned to Lemoine & Co. They arrived in the metropolis about 11 o’clock Saturday morning, and within an hour they had been confiscated.
Deputy State Fish and Game Commissioner Ernest Schaeffle of San Francisco was sent to this city to arrest the offender, and to prosecute the case before the court. The deputy spent Sunday in Sebastopol and Forestville, but was unable to locate Cassassa, who is believed to be in San Francisco.
It is not believed that Cassassa shipped the robins to the city for sale, but that he intended to follow them and have a feast in one of the French restaurants of that city. The robins are considered the finest of the small game birds by the French people, and it is probable that Cassassa had planned a treat for his friends, which has been spoiled by the vigilance of the officers. The law expressly forbids the shipment of robins, and from the fact that the box was labeled as dried apples, it is apparent that the shipper was aware that the law was being violated.
A young son of Mr. Cassassa appeared before the court this afternoon, but nothing was done ending his appearance late this afternoon. The youth promised to return after schol this afternoon.– Santa Rosa Republican, January 15, 1906