BILLY SUNDAY OF THE BIRDS
A MACLEAN'S FLASHBACK
The call of the wild goose touched the cantankerous heart of Jack Miner and he made a home for them and a niche in the hall of fame. Many scientists still frown at his methods, but the unlettered lecturer swayed a continent
ON OCT. 15, 1923, David Lloyd George of Britain, then the most famous man in the British Empire, gave two public addresses in Winnipeg. Eight thousand persons turned out to hear him. There was no admission charge.
A few days later Jack Miner, creator of the famed wild-goose sanctuary at Kingsville, Ont., arrived in Winnipeg, also to deliver two addresses. Many persons were turned away from packed halls in which Miner spoke and he gave a third address for the overflow. Thirteen thousand people paid from twenty-five to fifty cents to hear Miner talk. And “Uncle Jack” hadn’t then reached the peak of his popularity.
An unlettered farm boy who couldn’t speak a dozen words without making a grammatical error, Jack Miner became according to press clipping service surveys Canada’s most widely known and publicized citizen. Twenty years ago when thousands of U.S. citizens were asked to name the best-known private citizen of North America (statesmen were excluded) Jack Miner ranked fifth. Ahead of him were Edison, Ford, Lindbergh and Rickenbacker. After his death on Nov. 3, 1944, his name was added to the Book of Knowledge as one of the fifteen great men of the world. W. S. Milner, University of Toronto professor of Greek and Roman history, once ranked him with Aristotle among the world’s great thinkers. Humorist and author Irvin S. Cobb called him “the greatest naturalist on the planet.”
F’ame came to Jack Miner because he lured Canada geese by the thousands into a few puddles on his southwestern Ontario farm. There he protected and boarded them on Miner corn while they rested and strengthened on their migration flights. The geese still flock to Miner’s because, after Jack’s death, his three sons took over the job their father had begun.
Many have said, however, that another variety of corn contributed more to Miner’s fame. F’or thirty years he stumped the continent as a lecturer, dispensing a peculiar brand of ungrammatical, unpolished sentiment, wit and clichés that kept his audiences either weeping or splitting with laughter.
He was not a talented speaker, but he had an evangelist’s gift of pulling on an audience’s heartstrings. He was a Billy Sunday whose sermon theme was birds instead of salvation. Thousands wept at his description of “dear mother’s” deathbed, then laughed a few moments later as Miner sagely remarked that he was born barefooted. Hollywood and the radio had not yet refined the public’s ideas of what constituted humor. He could refer to his wife as “my mother-in-law’s daughter,” and it was brilliant wit for the day. Now most of his famous Jack-Minerisms wouldn’t raise a smile.
But more important than how he said it was what he said. L'or generations the forests and wildlife had been enemies of the pioneers, hindering development. Miner came along with a plea for wildlife conservation at a time when the public was beginning to see its need. He was marking his geese with aluminum leg bands and revealing a dramatic story of a six-thousand-mile-
a-ytar migration. An intensely religious man he was stamping his bands with Scripture texts and turning the birds of the air into missionaries. Today wildlife sanctuaries, conservation and birdbanding are commonplace. Bui when Miner started preaching these ideas thirty-five years ago it was a new and exciting message.
Others had espoused the cause of conservation before him, but no one before Jack Miner had brought the message to so large an audience.
In five years he crossed the continent seven times. Bands, mayors and premiers met 1 is trains. At Ottawa he was introduced to audiences by Mackenzie King and was the prime minister’s guest three times at Laurier House. In 1929 at Chicago he was introduced by President Herbert Hoover. In 1935 Miner and Mackenzie King were the two speakers who represented Catada on the empire-wide broadcast commemorating the silver jubilee of King George V.
But Miner’s reputation as a great naturalist was not unanimously supported. Among the scientists most qualified to judge him Miner was regarded as a naïve but well-meaning crackpot, a dabbler in the highly scientific field of wildlife management with no understanding of the scientific fundamentals involved. His interpretations of the wildlife observations he made were colored, sentimentalized and impulsive. His lectures were a mixture of common sense and nonsense which did much good for the cause of conservation and also much harm. He despised “experts with all their book leming” (his spelling). The experts looked upon him as a joke—but a serious sort of joke because of the immense influence he had on public thinking.
A controversial and paradoxical figure he was ridiculed by scientists in private and honored publicly by kings, prime ministers, presidents and millionaires. Canada’s best-known lover of birds, he loved nothing more than to see a hawk or owl dying slowly as it hung upside down in one of his pole traps. He was awarded the OBE by King George VI as a protector of the wild geese, yet the experts he despised argued with him for fifteen years before he would remodel his sanctuary to prevent taming the geese, which made them easy prey for gunners. He boasted he had never read a book, but government leaders who knew their politics better than their biology accepted his advice and ignored that of their own university-trained biologists.
Miner was always doing or advocating things which made him a thorn in the side of wildlife officials at Ottawa or, as Miner claimed, the officials were always a thorn in his side.
His banding system was the first Miner enterprise to come under official fire. He started placing leg bands on waterfowl in 1909. By 1920 there were several hundred birdbanders in Canada and the U.S., all operating individually with no central headquarters correlating their activities. About 1920 the Canadian and U.S. governments recognized banding as a scientific research which, if properly organized, could provide important data for game-law policies. So Ottawa and Washington jointly took over direction of all birdbanding. The confusion of scores of types of bands was removed by issuing all banders with identical, government-prepared bands bearing a serial number and the legend: Notify Biological Survey, Washington, D.C. All records were filed at Ottawa and Washington and all birdbanding correlated into a single operation.
Every bander welcomed the change, except Jack Miner. He insisted on remaining a lone wolf. His Scripture-bearing bands were bringing him a fame he refused to give up. And he was such a public hero that, politically if not legally, he was immune to government pressure. He was permitted to continue banding independently.
Next, government officials suggested he alter his bands and recording system so that his work would have greater scientific value. Frequently he banded hundreds of geese in a single day but there were no serial numbers on the bands to identify each bird individually. When one was shot, Miner’s records would show only the date or season when it was originally banded. There was no record of where and when it might have been trapped and released in the interval. There was no record
Continued on page 56
Continued from page 13
of sex or age—important data in the scientific management of waterfowl, for females and yearlings have higher mortality than males and adults.
Rut Miner responded with characteristic wrath. “You young whippersnappers just out of college who never banded a goose in your lives sit-in your offices and tell me how it should he i done,” he fumed. He won an easy ! decision and kept right on banding his own way.
About 1930 Sir Charles Tennant, a British steamship-line official, was visiting Miner. Tennant suggested that I twenty-five geese be marked with I special bands, then he would transport them free to England and liberate them there. The aim was to see if any would return across the Atlantic. Miner was speaking in Ottawa the next week and he outlined the experiment to government biologists. He was refused permission flatly: After America’s tragic experience with the English sparrow and European starling biologists have learned that a species beneficial in its native country frequently becomes a pest elsewhere. Rut Miner regarded the refusal as a meddling interference. What went on that morning between Miner and wildlife officials has never been revealed, but Miner said he was “terribly insulted.” This time he didn’t have his way. Three times afterward he was a guest of Mackenzie King, but he never entered the parliament buildings or any federal government office again.
Miner spent only three months in ! school and always felt that his inability ! to read except with difficulty had saved him from becoming “one of them hookeducated fools.” His knowledge of reading and writing was very limited until he was thirty-three. He probably wrote the word “banded” a thousand times in connection with his bird banding activities yet his record book shows that less than a week before he died he was still spelling it “bandid.”
Taming Geese For Gunners
He refused to admit that universitytrained “armchair theorists” could teach him anything. But he had a way of quietly following the advice of experts after a face-saving interval. Some University of Toronto biologists warned him that the concentration of geese in his small ponds might result in an epidemic of parasitism or disease. They : were especially worried about a para-
; sitie intestinal fluke spread among I geese by water snails. The remedy they suggested was simple—drain the ponds every summer and let the bottoms dry in the sun. Miner told the experts to go back to their books. But a year or two later he was draining the ponds as they had advised.
A major criticism Miner ignored for fifteen years was that he was needlessly taming his geese. One of his ponds was i just a few yards from his home and a public road. He enjoyed showing off his geese to visitors at close range and the regular evening feeding, which brought geese in flocks of hundreds,
I was always conducted at this pond I where spectators could gather a few yards away. The birds became accustomed to the presence of humans, lost their instinctive wariness, then, when I they left the protection of Miner’s ! haven, hunters could knock them off ; as easy as chickens.
Between 1910 and 1925 Miner s sanctuary probably caused the death of more geest: than it saved. Miner must have known it for it was suggested in numerous letters from hunters to
Miner himself. Owen Griffith, Hudson’s Bay Co. factor on James Bay, where hundreds of Canada geese are shot byIndians, wrote to Miner in 1913: “The Indians who killed those tagged geese said they seemed tamer than the others and came down to decoys when the rest of the flock would not.”
In 1923 E. Renouf, another HBC trader, wrote: “I am rather afraid
some of the birds which recourse to your sanctuary are lulled there into a greater trust in mankind than is well for their continued well-being, as undoubtedly some fall very easy victims to gunners.”
Around 1925 Miner stopped feeding geese at the roadside pond and started using ponds farther back, screened from the road by trees. He built a lookout building from which visitors could watch the geese without the birds seeing them. Since then the birds have been kept in a natural wild state.
But, in spite of the fact that biologists were frequently pooh-poohing him and he was always pooh-poohing hack. Jack Miner had the public of two nations behind him and he had more influence over government wildlife and hunting policies than all the biologist advisers in the country.
Occasionally that influence was misdirected into mistaken and ill-conceived causes, but often the policies for which he campaigned were sound and worth while. Thirty years ago he warned that areas around James Bay would have to be closed to hunting if the geese were to survive. Years later Ottawa followed his advice. He was instrumental in bringing about abolishment of art ificial baiting to lure waterfowl for hunting. He advocated that a government committee sit down with sportsmen and naturalists each year and hear their recommendations a plan nowfollowed in several provinces. He condemned the practice of handing out game-warden appointments as political prizes, demanded that wardens be trained for their job, and years later he saw provinces follow this advice.
But his most vigorous campaign was one that discredited him among naturalists and biologists throughout the continent. He had an unreasoning hatred of predators, especially hawks and owls, and thirty years of scientificargument failed to change his views on a single point. The hawks and owls
Continued on page 58
Continued from page 56
couldn’t have had a more dangerous enemy for Miner’s statements on natural history were accepted as the last word in scientific accuracy. Gunners anxious for an excuse to blast away at any large living target would walk away from Miner lectures and remember one point: “Jack Miner says shoot the hawks and owls.”
There are about fifty species of hawks and owls in North America. Thousands have been shot in all localities and all seasons and their eating preferences determined by scientific analyses of stomach contents. About five of the fifty prefer small birds, will frequently attack farm fowl, and are regarded as injurious to the interests of man. The remainder have been proven to be destroyers of mice and shrews, pests that cost the continent’s agriculture millions of dollars each year.
Miner formed an erroneous impression of the destructiveness of hawks and owls because he insisted on basing I everything on what he saw himself ; instead of combining his own observations with those of others. The observations of others he would have had to obtain from books and journals—and that was “book leming.” The western shore of Lake Erie where Miner’s sanctuary is located forms the point of a migration funnel through which a large share of the hawks of eastern North America pass in their autumn flight southward. Miner saw thousands of hawks there and insisted on believing the same numbers existed everywhere else. He used to tell audiences | that “our beautiful songbirds” had dej creased ninety-five percent in his lifetime but the hawks and owls which were “eating them alive” were as | numerous as ever—an impossible hypothesis, for no predatory group could j maintain its population on five percent of its original food supply.
Miner is suspected of having employed a bit of skulduggery in attempts to prove his point. In 1930 he sent sixty hawks he had shot to the Royal Ontario Museum of Zoology for stomach analyses. Three quarters were species known to feed largely on small birds, so most had bird remains in the stomachs. One hawk had a meadow lark jammed down its throat—an obvious attempt at deception for hawks never swallow prey whole, always tear it apart and eat it bit by bit.
On this selected evidence Miner sent a release to newspapers which, in effect, condemned all hawks and owls. It was widely published. Nature lovers and scientists berated Miner in letters to editors. Nature poet Wallace Havelock Robb, who a few years before had written a poetic tribute to Miner, penned A Rebuke to Jack Miner. The I Brodie Club of Toronto, a group of j professional and nonprofessional scientists, published a three-thousand-word ! reply tearing the Miner statement ¡ apart fact by fact. B. S. Bowdish, secretary of the New Jersey Audubon Society, sent a half-column letter to leading papers in Canada and the U.S. in which he summed up:
There is deplorable danger that a lopsided conservationist may end by doing to his good name what the proverbial cow did when, having given a good pail of milk, she turned around and kicked it over.
But Jack Miner emerged as a greater public idol than ever. He called his critics “indoor naturalists,” quoted Scripture in reply.
At that time Ontario had a law preventing the shooting of most hawks and j I owls. As a result of Miner’s influence ! the law was scrapped. Today, after j j twenty years of battling by naturalists ? i and biologists, Miner’s influence is still ‘
on the law books, for only the eagle and osprey have been returned to protection.
Miner’s life story reads like something out of a schoolbook, which isn’t unusual since it is in schoolbooks of Canada, the U.S., Egypt, Ethiopia, Uruguay and elsewhere.
He was born “barefooted” in a dilapidated log schoolhouse turned into a home at Dover Centre, near Cleveland, Ohio, on April 10, 1865. He was always more interested in trapping and hunting than in schooling, but when he was twelve his mother succeeded in getting him to attend a school several miles away. The young red-headed and fl eck led Jack went to school three months. One morning he poked a skunk out of a hole and killed it. The teacher sent him home to change into some unskunked clothing. Jack never went back.
When he was thirteen the family moved into Canada. On the horseand-wagon trek eastward from Windsor, Jack’s father, who was a devout Methodist, is said to have stopped at every town and counted the saloons. If the count went past the fingers of one hand he is recorded as saying: “This is no place for my boys.” And he would give the team a smack and drive on. Forty miles from Windsor the lakeshore village of Kingsville evidently passed the saloon test, and here the Miners settled with their family of ten children.
When the Mothers Smoked
Jack and his older brother became professional market hunters, shooting game and selling it in Windsor and Detroit. The father had been a brickand-tile maker in Ohio, and on his Kingsville farm, he discovered a supply of the same valuable brick clay he had had near Cleveland. The family went back to bricks and tiles.
Jack spent all his spare time hunting. In 1898 his brother was accidentally shot and killed while they were moose hunting in Quebec. About the same time two other members of the family died and Jack, previously too busy hunting to be much of a churchman, got religion. He was a devout Methodist ever afterward. He regarded booze as mankind’s greatest curse, never played cards, and in 1928 he noted gloomily that the future of humanity was in dire peril “with the motherhood of the land learning to smoke cigarettes.”
Miner’s account of how he became a protector of waterfowl is another illustration of highly dubious reasoning from a scientific point of view, but it was a story that thrilled hundreds of audiences.
One morning before daylight in March 1903 he was out with his decoys on a corn field where Canada geese had been feeding. Just as it was turning light a flock came in view. He crawled under a blanket to hide. But two farmers appeared in a neighboring field and Miner was sure the wary birds would spot the men and shy away. However the geese flew directly over the men then came down on stiffened wings toward his decoys. But while still out of gunshot the big birds began honking in alarm, wheeled away and flew out of sight.
Miner went home in disgust. He decided that the geese had ignored the two farmers because they knew they were not enemies. But when the birds saw his own red hair protruding from beneath the blanket, they had recognized him as an enemy who had shot at them before. Probably more than Miner’s red hair was involved in frightening the geese but it made a good story, and it started him thinking about the establishment of a sanctuary. If the geese could recognize an enemy that readily, he thought they would also recognize a friend.
The record isn’t clear, however, whether Miner was more interested in attracting geese to protect them, or to have them around to shoot.
The next spring, 1904, Miner cleaned out one of the ponds formed by removal of clay. He bought seven wing-clipped Canada geese from a farmer who had live-trapped them illegally and put them out as decoys. Then he waited, while the Vs of wild geese passed overhead without giving his decoys a second honk. None came in 1905 . . . in 1906 . . . in 1907. When Jack went in to Kingsville small boys honked at him and flapped their arms like geese. He became known as the Old Quack, and began avoiding his neighbors to escape their ridicule.
On April 2, 1908, a flock of eleven geese flew over. The decoys honked excitedly. The wild ones circled back, arched their wings and glided down to Miner’s pond. The Old Quack had succeeded.
Miner had been promising the neighbors good shooting for four years and they were soon on hand with their guns. “Let ’em settle down for a while then the ones we don’t shoot will come back next spring,” Miner argued. The neighbors took their guns home glumly.
Three weeks later Jack’s own trigger finger was itching and he called them all back. The eleven geese were still there, growing fat on the corn Miner was putting out for them. The gunners blazed away and five geese were shot, six escaped. The six were back next morning, but Miner refused to permit any more shooting. Early in May his
six wild geese took off for the Arctic.
On March 18, 1909, thirty-two wild geese came down to Miner’s decoys. Jack called in the gunners and ten more were shot. The next March Miner had four hundred geese on his place; they shot twenty-six. On Feb. 20, 1911, the geese started arriving again more than he could count. “I didn’t know there was so many geese on earth,” he said. There was more shooting that year and one big gander had its wing shattered by shot. Jack patched up the wing and let it go. The gander was never able to fly again, and a companion, another gander, stayed faithfully by the wounded bird’s side. The uninjured bird never left the Miner sanctuary again, refusing to abandon his flightless companion.
Jack named the pair David and Jonathan and told this touching story of bird devotion to thousands, although he rarely revealed that it all started because of shooting on a sanctuary where the geese had come to expect protection.
Miner always had a strong sentimental twist to his personality and the David and Jonathan incident was the clincher in his conversion from hunter to bird lover. He didn’t allow the shooting of another goose.
a black duck—in 1909. A year later the duck was shot in South Carolina, the band returned to him, and Miner recognized banding as a romantic method of tracing bird migration. A few years later he started trapping and banding geese. In 1915 he bought a Salvation Army calendar which carried numerous texts and—“God told me to begin stamping the Scripture texts on my goose bands.”
Miner’s “religious geese” became famous and hundreds of letters from missionaries in the Canadian north testified how Indians and Eskimos were being turned to Christianity by the birds with the messages from God. To Miner, and to most Canadians, this was far more important than the criticism that the banding might have been done to yield more scientific data. Furthermore, what Miner’s banding missed because of its lack of scientific quality was offset partly by its sheer quantity. He banded forty thousand geese and since his death another eight thousand have been banded by his son, Jasper. All other waterfowl banders on the continent between 1920 and 1951 have banded a total of only twenty-five thousand Canada geese.
By 1915 Miner had twenty thousand geese staying at his ponds for several months each spring and fall, eating about six thousand dollars’ worth of corn a year. Grants totaling $1,150 a year from the federal and Ontario governments didn’t begin to pay the bills. He tried various means of discouraging the geese, but the honkers insisted on making his home their home.
So about 1916 he took to the road as a lecturer to raise funds to keep them fed. He earned as much as sixteen hundred dollars for a single lecture (at Massey Hall, Toronto, in the late 1930s) but the geese never made Jack Miner wealthy. In thirty-five years there wasn’t a day that he didn’t owe the banks money, and by 1944, when he died, his geese had eaten him ten thousand dollars into debt.
The Canada geese still flock each spring and fall to the ponds from which Jack Miner once took brick clay. The sanctuary is now operated by the Jack Miner Migratory Bird Foundation Inc., under the direction of his three sons, Manly, Jasper and Ted. It costs about twenty-four thousand dollars a year to maintain, most of this for feeding the geese and taxes. The
foundation receives sixty-five hundred dollars a year in government grants and about fifteen thousand dollars a year in public donations. None of the Miners take any salary from the foundation, although Manly and Jasper devote practically their entire time to its work. All have independent incomes. Ted operates a mink ranch, Jasper a chicken farm, and Manly, when pressed in a Maclean’s interview, explained with embarrassment: “If you must know, I married into the richest family in Kingsville.”
The foundation today is seven thousand dollars in debt with bank loans pledged by personal notes of the three sons. Jasper told me: “What the
future holds we do not know. We can’t get out and lecture like dad did to keep the geese fed.”
Unfortunately there was a lot of ballyhoo attached to Jack Miner’s bame. He didn’t originate the wildlife sanctuary idea, as is frequently
claimed. A few sanctuaries, unknown to the public, predated his. One, a waterfowl sanctuary of similar type in Oakland, Calif., is fifty years older. He was, however, the first man to succeed in getting the big and wary Canada goose to use a sanctuary.
He didn’t originate birdbanding a claim often made for him. By 1909 when Miner banded his first duck there were so many other banders scattered throughout the continent that that year the American Birdbanding Association was formed. Just forty-five miles away in Detroit P. A. Taverner was banding birds five years ahead of Miner. Taverner, who later became ornithologist for the Canadian government, described the possibilities in banding to Miner and told Miner where he could obtain metal for bands in Detroit.
But, add up all the demerit marks, and Jack Miner still deserves the fame he won as a great Canadian. He created a nature spectacle that is unmatched on the continent. He preached conservation across a continent and practiced it spectacularly in his own back yard. He brought more tourists to Canada than anyone else except Papa Dionne. At times two hundred U. S. cars have been parked in front of his gate. And he sent them home with a new interest and love for wildlife.
His greatest contribution was that he reached hundreds of thousands with a simple sincere plea for wildlife conservation. Perhaps the plea was sentimentalized and colored with scientifically inaccurate claims. But in his Billy Sunday way Jack Miner reached a tremendous audience and prepared Canada and the U. S. for the measures aimed at conservation of natural resources which are in effect today. For he talked in the common man’s language.
The hundreds of thousands who packed halls and stood in the aisles to listen to Jack Miner wouldn’t have walked across a street to hear a scientist tell the same story. it