Anyone visiting freshwater wetlands or salt water marshes today are bound to see dozens of great egrets wading in the shallow water hunting for fish, frogs, crayfish and insects. This was not the case in the late 1800’s when plume hunters nearly wiped out this bird, other egret species and numerous wading birds.
Egret feathers, especially the breeding wisp feathers, were used in the millinery industry in New York and London where it was fashionable to wear hats adorned with bird feathers in the 1800’s. Hunters killed nesting egrets, where they gathered in rookeries, leaving the hatchlings to starve to death. This put egrets and other species on the brink of extinction.
Thanks to Harriet Lawrence Hemenway, an avid birder in Boston, the trend to wear feathered hats turned. She held tea parties for Boston’s elite to make women aware of the calamity occurring to the birds. Hemenway encouraged them not to buy these feathered hats or to wear them. Some did, some refused, but this was the match that lit a movement to ban the use of feathers in the hat industry.
Out of this drive the Massachusetts Audubon Society was founded as were other Audubon Societies that eventually lead to the creation of the National Audubon Society. The great egret became Audubon’s symbol.
A law called the Lacey Act was passed by congress in 1900 to ban the transportation of birds across state lines, but it did little to slow the decimation of the birds. A conservation officer was shot and killed by a plume hunter when the officer attempted to enforce the law. It wasn’t until 1913 when another law – the Weeks-Mclean Law was passed that put an end to the plume trade.
This led to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 which was challenged in the supreme court. The court ruled in favor of the law stating that the protection of birds was in the nation’s best interest.
There have been many species of wildlife decimated at the hands of mankind. The great auk, a large flightless bird, of the islands in the northern circumpolar region was killed off by over-zealous hunters for food and trade. It disappeared by the mid-1800’s. The passenger pigeon, was massacred by the millions for sport and food. It disappeared by 1900. It is a trend that still occurs today with the killing of the black rhino for its horn and the poaching of the lowland gorilla.
Only through the efforts of caring, compassionate people will these species survive. Thanks to Harriet Lawrence Hemenway, the great egret and its cousins bounced back to healthy levels for who is now the future generations of the past.
“Only if we understand, can we care – only if we care, will we help – only if we help, shall they be saved.” – Jane Goodall.