Bird Study – Traffic In Feathers

THE traffic in the feathers of American birds for the millinery trade began to develop strongly about 1880 and assumed its greatest proportions during the next ten years. The wholesale milliners whose business and pleasure it was to supply these ornaments for women’s hats naturally turned for their supply first to those species of birds most easily procured. Agents were soon going about the country looking for men to kill birds for their feathers, and circulars and hand bills offering attractive prices for feathers of various kinds were mailed broadcast. The first great onslaughts were made on the breeding colonies of sea birds along the Atlantic Coast. On Long Island there were some very large communities of Terns and these were quickly raided. The old birds were shot down and the unattended young necessarily were left to starve. Along the coast of Massachusetts the sea birds suffered a like fate. Maine with its innumerable outlying rocky islands was, as it is today, the chief nursery of the Herring Gulls and Common Terns of the North Atlantic. This fact was soon discovered and thousands were slaughtered every summer, their wings cut off, and their bodies left to rot among the nests on the rookeries.

War on the Sea Swallows.—During a period of seven years more than 500,000 Terns’, or Sea Swallows’, skins were collected in spring and summer in the sounds of North and South Carolina. These figures I compiled from the records and accounts given me by men who did the killing. Their method was to fit out small sailing vessels on which they could live comfort-ably and cruise for several weeks; in fact, they were usually out during the entire three months of the nesting period. That was the time of year that offered best rewards for such work, for then the birds feathers bore their brightest lustre, and the birds being assembled on their nesting grounds they could easily be shot in great numbers. After the birds were killed the custom was to skin them, wash off the blood stains with benzine, and dry the feathers with plaster of Paris. Arsenic was used for curing and preserving the skins. Men in this business became very skilful and rapid in their work, some being able to prepare as many as one hundred skins in a day.

Millinery agents from New York would sometimes take skinners with them and going to a favourable locality would employ local gunners to shoot the birds which they in turn would skin. In this way one New York woman with some assistants collected and brought back from Cobbs’ Island, Virginia, 10,000 skins of the Least Tern in a single season.

In the swamps of Florida word was carried that the great millinery trade of the North was bidding high for the feathers of those plume birds which gave life and beauty even to its wildest regions. It was not long before the cypress fastnesses were echoing to the roar of breech-loaders, and cries of agony and piles of torn feathers became common sounds and sights even in the remotest depths of the Everglades. What mattered it if the semi-tropical birds of exquisite plumage were swept from existence, if only the millinery trade might prosper!

The milliners were not content to collect their prey only in obscure and little-known regions, for a chance was seen to commercialize the small birds of the forests and fields. Warblers, Thrushes, Wrens, in fact all those small forms of dainty bird life which come about the home to cheer the hearts of men and women and gladden the eyes of little children, commanded a price if done to death and their pitiful remains shipped to New York.

Taxidermists, who made a business of securing birds and preparing their skins, found abundant opportunity to ply their trade. Never had the business of taxidermy been so profitable as in those days. For example, in the spring of 1882 some of the feather agents established themselves at points on the New Jersey coast, and sent out word to residents of the region that they would buy the bodies of freshly killed birds of all kinds procurable. The various species of Terns, which were then abundant on the jersey coast, offered the best opportunity for profit, for not only were they found in vast numbers, but they were comparatively easy to shoot. Ten cents apiece was the price paid, and so lucrative a business did the shooting of these birds become that many baymen gave up their usual occupation of sailing pleasure parties and became gunners. These men often earned as much as one hundred dollars a week for their skill with the shotgun.

It is not surprising that at the end of the season a local observer reported: “One cannot help noticing now the scarcity of Terns on the New jersey coast, and it is all owing to their merciless destruction.” One might go further and give the sickening details of how the birds were swept from the mud flats about the mouth of the Mississippi and the innumerable shell lumps of the Chandeleurs and the Breton Island region; how the Great Lakes were bereft of their feathered life, and the swamps of the Kankakee were invaded; how the White Pelicans, Western’ Grebes, Caspian Terns, and California Gulls of the West were butchered and their skinned bodies left in pyramids to fester in the sun. One might recount stories of Bluebirds and Robins shot on the very lawns of peaceful, bird-loving citizens of our Eastern States in order that the feathers might be spirited away to feed the insatiable appetite of the wholesale milliner dealers. Never have birds been worn in this country in such numbers as in those days. Ten or fifteen small song birds’ skins were often sewed on a single hat!

What the Ladies Wore.—In 1886 Dr. Frank M. Chapman walked through the shopping district of New York City on his way home, two afternoons in succession, and carefully observed the feather decorations on the hats of the women he chanced to meet. The result of his observation, as reported to Forest and Stream, shows that he found in common use as millinery trimming many highly esteemed birds as the following list which he wrote down at the time will serve to show:

Robins, Thrushes, Bluebirds, Tanagers, Swallows, Warblers, Waxwings, Bobolinks, Larks, Orioles, Doves, and Woodpeckers.

In all, the feathers of at least forty species were discernible.

In commenting on his trips of inspection, Doctor Chapman wrote: ” It is evident that in proportion to the number of hats seen, the list of birds given is very small, for in most cases mutilation rendered identification impossible. Thus, while one afternoon seven hundred hats were counted and on them but twenty birds recognized, five hundred and forty-two were decorated with feathers of some kind. Of the one hundred and fifty-eight remaining, seventy-two were worn by young or middle-aged ladies, and eighty-six by ladies in mourning or elderly ladies.”

This was a period when people seemed to go mad on the subject of wearing birds and feathers. They were used for feminine adornment in almost every conceivable fashion. Here are two quotations from New York daily papers of that time, only the names of the ladies are changed: “Miss Jones looked extremely well in white with a whole nest of sparkling, scintillating birds in her hair which it would have puzzled an ornithologist to classify,” and again: ” Mrs. Robert Smith had her gown of unrelieved black looped up with black birds; and a winged creature, so dusky that it could have been intended for nothing but a Crow, reposed among the curls and braids of her hair.”

Ah, those were the halcyon days of the feather trade! Now and then a voice cried out at the slaughter, or hands were raised at the sight of the horrible shambles, but there were no laws to prevent the killing nor was there any strong public sentiment to demand its cessation, while on the other hand more riches yet lay in store for the hunter and the merchant. There were no laws whatever to protect these birds, nor was there for a time any man of force to start a crusade against the evil.