Bird Study – The Story Of The Egrets

The most shameless blot on the history of America’s treatment of the wild birds is in connection with the White Egrets. It is from the backs of these birds that the “aigrettes” come, so often seen on the hats of the fashionable. Years ago, as a boy in Florida, I first had an opportunity to observe the methods employed by the feather hunters in collecting these aigrettes which are the nuptial plumes of the bird and are to be found on birds only in the spring. As a rare treat I was permitted to accept the invitation ex-tended by a squirrel hunter to accompany him to the nesting haunts of a colony of these birds. Away we went in the gray dawn of a summer morning through the pine barrens of southern Florida until the heavy swamps of Horse Hammock were reached. I re-member following with intense interest the description given by my companion of how these birds with magnificent snowy plumage would come flying in over the dark forest high in air and then volplane to the little pond where, in the heavily massed bushes, their nests were thickly clustered. With vivid distinctness he imitated the cackling notes of the old birds as they settled on their nests, and the shrill cries of the little ones, as on unsteady legs they reached upward for their food.

Keen indeed was the disappointment that awaited me. With great care we approached the spot and with caution worked our way to the very edge of the pond. For many minutes we waited, but no life was visible about the buttonwood bushes which held the nests no old birds like fragments of fleecy clouds came floating in over the dark canopy of cypress trees. My companion, wise in the ways of hunters, as well as the habits of birds, suspected something wrong and presently found nearby the body of an Egret lying on the ground, its back, from which the skin bearing the fatal aigrettes had been torn, raw and bloody. A little farther along we came to the remains of a second and then a third, and still farther on, a fourth. As we approached, we were warned of the proximity of each ghastly spectacle by the hideous buzzing of green flies swarming over the lifeless forms of the parent birds.

At one place, beneath a small palmetto bush, we found the body of an Egret which the hunters had overlooked. Falling to the ground sorely wounded, it had escaped its enemies by crawling to this hiding-place. Its appearance showed the suffering which it had endured. The ground was bare where in its death agonies it had beaten the earth with its wings. The feathers on the head and neck were raised and the bill was buried among the blood-clotted feathers of its breast. On the higher ground we discovered some straw and the embers of a campfire, giving evidence of the recent presence of the plume hunters. Examination of the nests over the pond revealed numerous young, many of which were now past suffering; others, however, were still alive and were faintly calling for food which the dead parents could never bring. Later inquiry developed the fact that the plumes taken from the backs of these parent birds were shipped to one of the large millinery houses in New York, where in due time they were placed on the market as “aigrettes,” and of course subsequently purchased and worn by fashionable women, as well as by young and old women of moderate incomes, who sacrifice much for this millinery luxury.

There were at that time to be found in Florida many hundreds of colonies of these beautiful birds, but their feathers commanded a large price and offered a most tempting inducement for local hunters to shoot them. Many of the men of the region were poor, and the rich harvest which awaited them was very inviting. At that time gunners received from seventy-five cents to one dollar and a quarter for the “scalp” of each bird, which ordinarily contained forty or more plume feathers. These birds were not con-fined to Florida, but in the breeding season were to be found in swampy regions of the Atlantic Coast as far north as New Jersey, some being discovered carrying sticks for their nests on Long Island.

Civilized nations to-day decry any method of war-fare which results in the killing of women and children, but the story of the aigrette trade deals with the slaughter of innocents by the slow process of starvation, a method which history shows has never been followed by even the most savage race of men dealing with their most hated enemies. This war of extermination which was carried forward unchecked for years could mean but one thing, namely, the rapid disappearance of the Egrets in the United States. As nesting birds, they have disappeared from New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, and also those States of the central Mississippi Valley where they were at one time to be found in great numbers.

Amateur Feather Hunters.—Quite aside from the professional millinery feather hunter there should be mentioned the criminal slaughter of birds which has been indulged in by individuals who have killed them for the uses of their own lady friends. I know one Brown Pelican colony which was visited by a tourist who shot four hundred of the big, harmless, inoffensive creatures in order to get a small strip of skin on either side of the body. He explained to his boatmen, who did the skinning for him, that he was curious to see if these strips of skin with their feathers would not make an interesting coat for his wife. The birds killed were all caring for their young in the nests at the time he and his hirelings shot them.

There was a few years ago, in a Georgia city, an attorney who accepted the aigrette “scalps” of twenty-seven Egrets from a client who was unable to pay cash for a small service rendered. He told me he had much pleasure in distributing these among his lady friends. Another man went about the neighbour-hood hunting male Baltimore Orioles until he had shot twelve, as he wanted his sisters to have six each for their Sunday hats. The Roseate Spoonbill of the Southern States was never extensively killed for the millinery trade, and yet today it is rapidly approaching extinction. The feathers begin to fade in a short time and for this reason have little commercial value, but the amateur Northern tourist feather hunter has not known this, or disregarded the fact, and has been the cause of the depletion of the species in the United States. Almost every one could cite instances similar to the above, for there are many people in the United States who are guilty of taking part in the destruction of birds for millinery purposes. In addition to the feathers of American birds already mentioned the feathers of certain foreign species have been very much in demand.

Paradise Plumes—One of the most popular foreign feathers brought to this country is the Paradise. There are at least nine species of Paradise Birds found in New Guinea and surrounding regions that furnish this product. The males are adorned with long, curved delicate feathers which are gorgeously coloured. As in the case of all other wild birds there is no way of getting the feathers except by killing the owners. Much of this is done by natives who shoot them down with little arrows blown through long hollow reeds. The high price paid for these feathers has been the occasion of the almost total extinction of some of the species, as indicated by the decreased number of feathers offered at the famous annual London Feather Sales. Travellers in the regions inhabited by the birds speak of the distressing effect of the continuous calls of the bereft females as they fly about in the forests during the mating season. As a high-priced adornment the Paradise is the one rival of the famous aigrette.

Maribou.—The Maribou which has been fashionable for a number of years past comes principally from the Maribou Stork of Africa. These white, fluffy, downlike feathers grow on the lower underpart of the body of the Maribou Stork. These birds are found in the more open parts of the country. Their food consists of such small forms of life as may readily be found in the savannas and marshes. To some ex-tent they also feed like vultures on the remains of larger animals.

Pheasants.—The long tail feathers of Pheasants have been much in demand by the millinery trade during the past ten years. Although several species contribute to the supply, the majority are from the Chinese Pheasant, or a similar hybrid descendent known as the English Ring-necked Pheasant. Many of these feathers have been collected in Europe, where the birds are extensively reared and shot on great game preserves; vast numbers, however, have come from China. Oddly enough in that country the birds were originally little disturbed by the natives, who seem not to care for meat. Then came the demand for feathers, and the birds have since been killed for this purpose to an appalling extent.

Numidie.—This popular hat decoration suddenly appeared on our market in great numbers a few years ago. It is taken from the Manchurian Eared Pheasant of northern China. Unless the demand for these feathers is overcome in some way there will undoubtedly come a day in the not-distant future when the name of this bird must be added to the lengthening list of species that have been sacrificed to the greed of the shortsightedness of man.

Goura.—The fashionable and expensive hat decoration which passes under the trade name of Goura consists of the slender feathers, usually four or five inches long with a greatly enlarged tip, that grows out fanlike along a line down the centre of the head and nape of certain large Ground Pigeons that in-habit New Guinea and adjacent islands. Perhaps the best-known species is the Crowned Pigeon.

There is a special trade name for the feathers of almost every kind of bird known in the millinery business. Thus there is Coque for Black Cock, Cross Aigrettes for the little plumes of the Snowy Egret, and Eagle Quills from the wings not only of Eagles, but of Bustards, Pelicans, Albatrosses, Bush Turkeys, and even Turkey Buzzards. The feathers of Ma-caws in great numbers are used in the feather trade, as well as hundreds of thousands of Hummingbirds, and other bright-coloured birds of the tropics.

Women’s Love for Feathers.—One of the most coveted and easily acquired feminine adornments has been feathers. At first these were probably taken almost wholly from birds killed for food, but later, when civilization became more complex and resourceful, millinery dealers searched the ends of the earth to supply the demands of discriminating women. The chief reason why it has been so difficult to induce educated and cultivated women of this age to give up the heartless practice of wearing feathers seems to be the fact that the desire and necessity for adornment developed through the centuries has be-come so strong as to be really an inherent part of their natures. It is doubtful if many people realize how strong and all-powerful this desire for conforming to fashion in the matter of dress sits enthroned in the hearts of tens of thousands of good women.

There was a time when I thought that any woman with human instincts would give up the wearing of feathers at once upon being told of the barbaric cruelties involved in their acquisition. But I have learned to my amazement that such is not the case. Not long ago I received one of the shocks of my life. Somewhat over two years ago a young woman came to work in our office. I supposed she had never heard, except casually, of the great scourge of the millinery trade in feathers. Since that time, how-ever, she has been in daily touch with all the import-ant efforts made in this country and abroad to legislate the traffic out of existence, to guard from the plume hunters the colonies of Egrets and other water birds, and to educate public sentiment to a proper appreciation of the importance of bird protection. She has typewritten a four-hundred-page book on birds and bird protection, has acknowledged the receipt of letters from the wardens telling of desperate rifle battles that they have had with poachers, and written letters to the widow of one of our agents shot to death while guarding a Florida bird rookery. In the heat of campaigns she has worked overtime and on holidays. I have never known a woman who laboured more conscientiously or was apparently more interested in the work. Frequently her eyes would open wide and she would express resentment when reports reached the office of the atrocities perpetrated on wild birds by the heartless agents of the feather trade. Recently she married and left us. Last week she called at the office, looking very beautiful and radiant. After a few moments” conversation she approached the subject which evidently lay close to her heart. Indicating a cluster of paradise aigrettes kept in the office for exhibition purposes, she looked me straight in the face and in the most frank and guileless manner asked me to sell them to her for her new hat! The rest of the day I was of little service to the world.

What was the good of all the long years of unceasing effort to induce women to stop wearing bird feathers, if this was a fair example of results? Of all the women I knew, there was no one who had been in a position to learn more of the facts regarding bird slaughter than this one; yet it seems that it had never entered her mind to make a personal application of the lesson she had learned. The education and restraint of legislative enactments were all meant for other people.