The reedbird (also bobolink, ricebird) holds a unique and controversial place in Delaware’s culinary history. Once a prized game bird, its status dramatically shifted within the span of a few decades, illustrating how the intertwined forces of gastronomy, ecology, and law can redefine our relationship with the natural world.
The ‘Delaware Advertiser and Farmer’s Journal’ mentions a “fine string of reed-birds” gracing the market stalls as early as 1824. Reedbirds were not just available; they were a delicacy. The ‘Middletown Register’ of August 1868 expounded on their gastronomic virtues: “What a luscious broil, or palatable pie they make.” The birds were so popular that city restaurants commanded high prices for them. They were an epicurean event, eagerly awaited and devoured.
Reedbirds Fall from Grace
Yet, by the turn of the century, a shift occurred. An October 1, 1900, column in the ‘News Journal’ noted that in New York, America’s cosmopolitan epicenter, the reedbird was falling out of favor. Portia’s New York Letter commented, “The up-to-date girl has finished with the toothsome reedbird and asks now for a stuffed partridge.” Reedbirds were old news, at least for the urban elite.
In contrast, Delawareans remained steadfast in their love for the ‘reedies.’ Wilmington’s ‘Evening Journal’, in 1907, painted a vivid picture of marshes teeming with reedbirds and of gunners flooding the fields at daybreak, as a “miniature battle” of gunfire erupted to claim the prized birds. The ‘Morning News’ reported on September 1, 1908 that the reedbird season had commenced, promising a plentiful hunt “in quest of the toothsome reedbird.”
The reedbirds’ food-related reign, however, would soon meet legislative obstacles. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 aimed to protect migratory birds, instigated by avian conservation activists alarmed at dwindling populations. Delaware’s Senator Willard Hickman and Governor Charles Miller found themselves at odds with this federal law, expressing that it conflicted with Delaware’s pre-existing game laws. Their resistance fell on deaf ears in Congress.
In a surprising turn of events, January 1919 saw the hunting ban lifted on reedbirds in 8 southern states (including Delaware), after Secretary of Agriculture Houston deemed them harmful to southern agricultural interests, particularly rice fields. “Every man who owns a shotgun and likes to go out after the birds will throw up his hat and let out a very joyful noise,” cried the ‘Evening Journal.’
From Southern Scourge to Federally Protected
But this was not to last. In March 1927, the exemption was rescinded as reedbird populations started to collapse, and the reedbirds returned under federal protection, albeit with some exemptions for farmers in southern rice-growing states.
What we see through this winding journey is the complex interplay of taste, ecology, and policy. A bird once synonymous with Delaware cookery became a “southern scourge,” only to be redeemed and protected by federal law.
The reedbird’s journey from a celebrated game bird in Delaware markets to an agricultural pest and finally to a federally protected species provides a lens through which we can examine how local traditions and federal laws collide and collaborate. It is a story that, in its twists and turns, encapsulates the complexities of American cultural and ecological history.