If you grew up on an 800-plus acre property as I did with two months out of school during summer each year, bird shooting is a major pastime. We had acres and acres to roam and hours upon hours to do so. Not that I was any good, just decent at best. But my brothers! One, in particular, was as good with a slingshot as Sohrab in The Kite Runner.
This may have prepared him for what he did for about a decade or so as a member of the Jamaica Constabulary Force. He never really talked about what he did on the job, but I later got a hint from a member of my church who happened to have belonged to the same unit at the Mobile Reserve as he was. My brother had, by then, left the force years before. After expressing his surprise at the discovery that his erstwhile colleague and I are brothers, the church member let the puss (cat) out of the bag. “Your brother, he was one of our sharpshooters!” meaning he was a sniper. Pointing to somewhere on his upper body, he said, “sharpshooters wear this insignia on their uniform. He was one of the best.”
I guess having the skill to pick off a baldpate (we said bald plate) from way up at the top of a tall tree with a slingshot prepares you for sniper duty.
As summertime bird shooters, we were familiar with many varieties of birds, which ones to shoot and which not. We always aimed for the prized ones. The baldpate was the most prized; the largest, the rarest and the most difficult to find, and just as difficult to shoot down with a slingshot – you have to hit it in the head or aim for the heart. Next to the baldpate were the peadove and the whitewing (lapwing), the former more common, the latter much less so. One of the easiest targets was the loggerhead, which seemed to court death by being easy to find and sitting on low branches. It could, however, be fierce if it had young, in which case we would not bother to try and shoot it if we knew this.
The bird we feared the most was the pitchary, related to the loggerhead. It attacked without even being provoked, swooping down toward your head and seemingly aiming for the eyes.
Perhaps the hardest bird to take down, next to the baldpate, was the woodpecker. Tough as nails and difficult to see against the bark of a tree, where it often lodged itself. Its red head would give it away. No matter how well you hit it, even in the head, it seems to never fall. To take down a woodpecker was a feat, prized primarily because taking it down shows prowess with a slingshot.
Visitors to Jamaica seemed to have long been fascinated with its birds. As early as 1847, Philip Henry Gosse published a full volume titled, The Birds of Jamaica. W. T. March’s Notes on the Birds of Jamaica came out in an 1864 journal; W.E.D. Scott published, Observations on the Birds of Jamaica, West Indies in a journal in 1891; and Notes on the Birds of Port Henderson by G.W. Field was part of a larger volume in 1894. You get the picture.
Perhaps because of this interest, legislation was passed to protect birds and to regulate the shooting season. One such piece of legislation was Law 32 of 1886. It protected a host of birds – the Jamaica black bird, canary and the finch, except for the jack sparrow. The hummingbird, robbin red breast, swallow, solitaire, nightingale, flycatcher, warblers , john tewit, anteater , troopial, banana quit, blue quit, orange quit, mosquitto hawks or gi-mi-mi-bits, and the oldman or rain bird all made the protected list.
I remember shooting the various “quits” without knowing they were once protected. On this protected list were loggerheads and woodpeckers!
The law protected “certain birds which were being rapidly exterminated on account of the value of their plumage as well as others that are especially useful to agriculture as insect destroyers.” As an example, B. Pullen-Burry, writing in 1905, said “the parrot, with its gaudy plumage, and the macaw almost cease to exist.”
The 1886 law mandated a close season for bird shooting from March to July or August, depending on the species of bird or location in the island. The species to which this applied were specially named, among which were the much sought after baldpate along with the blue pigeon, ringtail, parrots, parrakeets, peadoves , whitewing, ground doves, hopping dicks, glasseyes, coots, white belly, mountain witch, partridge and pitcharies.
Law 4 in 1887 empowered the governor to add other birds to any of the two lists, the protected and the regulated, and Law 16 of 1899 authorized the governor to extend the close season.
One bird comes in for special mention: the John Crow. Even though I did not see it on the list of protected birds in the 1886 law, Sir Archibald David Scott, writing in 1875 on his trip to Jamaica, said:
These birds are ugly, but useful in consuming carrion and other impurities. They are, therefore, protected by law; a fine of £3 is attached to the wanton destruction of them. In consequence of their immunity they fly almost within arm’s reach of us; a peculiarity which strikes me about these birds is, that they never seem to flap their wings.
Yes, the famous (infamous?) Jamaican john crow/jankro/jranko was protected. I wonder if it still is.
We are aghast that the early English settlers mistook these carrion eaters for turkeys and actually tried to consume them:
The Jack Crows (sic) sitting on the housetops with outspread wings fit in with other objects in the tropical landscape. Sir Hans Sloane said when the English first landed they mistook these birds for turkeys, “by their bareness and colour of the skin on the head.” He narrates that some killed them, labouring under this delusion, “but the offensiveness of their lean bodies soon deceived them” (B. Pullen-Burry, 1905).