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Mr Hornaday’s War: How A Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged A Lonely Crusade For Wildlife that Changed The World by Stefan Bechtel. Beacon Press, Boston: 2012. Part One

June 21, 2016
2016 - 06 - 08 - Cheyenne Bottoms - 2a

Great Egrets (also known as American Egrets) at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, Kansas. June 8,2016

Molly and I went for a walk early Sunday (June 19, 2016)  morning at Denver’s Washington Park. In an effort to beat a forecast of temperatures reaching close to 100 degrees we started at 7:30. By the time we finished the 2 1/2 mile loop, the temperatures had spiked into the mid-to-high 80s. I could feel the sweat beads starting to form on my back. There was a good deal of active bird life along the way. A group of three pelicans who were diving for fish in unison (that was cool), Canadian geese and gaggle of goslings, ducks and ducklings (adorable little living things) and across the water we could see some egrets. One was a great white, the other I wasn’t sure of. Was it a cattle egret? but probably not as it had a black, not yellow beak.

On returning home, I turned to my spiritual guide in such matters, Kaufman’s Field Guide to Birds of North America(2000 edition). It was given to Nancy as a gift from our lifelong friend, Jo Ellen Patton, herself an experienced and knowledgeable bird watcher, now of Flagstaff, Arizona. While we have several other good birding guides (Peterson’s, National Geographic) we find ourselves relying on Kaufman’s more regularly than the others. Kaufman didn’t fail us. Closely related to a European cousin, known in French as an aigrette (little heron), the black-billed egret, easily identified, was a snowy egret, more common in east Texas and Louisiana, but whose  range includes the mountains and front range regions of Colorado, Utah and Nevada.

Hornaday’s Last Battles

Just prior to his death in 1937, William Temple Hornaday was still fighting an uphill battle to save what remained of the world’s wildlife from extinction from over-hunting, both in the United States and abroad. Among those species which early 20th century environmentalists saved was the snowy egret. .That there are any in Colorado – or anywhere else was no means assured. For the  passenger pigeon and bison it was too late

The snowy egret was hunted for its nuptial plumes (the feathers in the area of the male gonads which take on brighter colors during mating) which became decorations on late 19th century and early 20th century woman’s hats. So-called “osprey” plumes, actually egret plumes, were used as part of British army uniforms until they were discontinued in 1889. Along with many other bird species, it was on the verge of extinction when Hornaday, other naturalists, and a core group of society women who were about to form the Audubon Society initiated a campaign to ban their hunting.

At a time of economic development with the middle and working classes having more disposable income, women’s feathered hats became a status symbol – the more feathers on the hat, the greater the status.   It got to be so sordid that entire stuffed egrets were placed on the top of hats. As the demand for feathers increased so did the price. Ornamental feathers fetched $30 an ounce in 1903, nearly twice their weight in gold. The price in feathers eventually rose to $80 an ounce. While we’ll never know the numbers of birds killed to adorn women’s hats, it is probably something in the order of hundreds of millions. Unfortunately for snowy egrets, their feathers were among the most highly prized.

At its height in the late 19th to early 20th century, plume hunting not only included an army of hunters hungry for the bounty. It also provided subsistence for some 83,000 poor women millinery workers in New York City. A classic commodity chain based was set in motion. It began with  the killing of millions birds-the production of the raw material- followed by its processing, manufacturing, sale and consumption.

In 1886, 5 million birds were estimated to be killed for their feathers. [my emphasis] They were shot usually in the spring, when their feathers were colored for mating and nesting. The plumes, or aigrettes, as they were called in the millinery business, sold for $32 an ounce in 1915 — which was also the price of gold then. Millinery was a $17 million a year industry that motivated plume harvesters to lay in wait at the nests of egrets and other birds during the nesting season, shoot the parents with small-bore rifles, and leave the chicks to starve. Plumes from Everglades water birds could be found in Havana, New York City, London, and Paris. Hunters could collect plumes from a hundred birds on a good day.”

Key to the system’s maintenance was keeping plume harvesting from public scrutiny. In a common tradition of deception, plume hunters denied killing the birds, insisting that the feathers were taken after annual molting.Plumage often came from birds in the Florida Everglades, some of which were nearly extinguished by over-hunting. By 1900, more than five million birds were being killed every year, including 95 percent of Florida’s shore birds.

Given the scope of the mass killing, ultimately, such phony rationales could not hold up; the slaughter became impossible to hide or rationalize. (Not much different from modern cell phone users probing how or under what conditions, coltan, the material key to memory in the devices is mined today in the Congo.) Most consumers didn’t know…and from what we can tell, then and now, if they did know, didn’t care.

A great egret family; plume birds were often shot while sitting on their nests.

A great egret family; plume birds were often shot while sitting on their nests.

Plume hunters searched out egret rookeries, where parents sat on eggs and cared for the very young. As William Souder noted in a Smithsonian Magazine article in 2013, “the plume trade was a sordid business.” Souder goes on to quote Hornaday: “It was a common thing for a rookery of several hundred birds to be attacked by the plume hunters, and in two or three days utterly destroyed.” Plume birds were often shot while sitting on their nests. Instinctive protective of their young, the adults would refuse to move from their nests; thus they could be systematically, even casually slaughtered with their young left to die. One ex-poacher would later write of the practice, “The heads and necks of the young birds were hanging out of the nests by the hundreds. I am done with bird hunting forever!”

Hornaday calculated that in a single nine-month period the London market, the world’s largest feather market at the time, had consumed feathers from 130,000 egrets, and not only egrets. In 1886 it was estimated 50 North American species were being slaughtered for their feathers. By the late 19th century, plume hunters had nearly wiped out the snowy egret population of the United States. Flamingos, roseate spoonbills, great egrets and peafowl also were targeted by plume hunters.

In 1912, to document the gravity of the growing holocaust caused by plume hunters Hornaday sent a young ornithologist, C. William Beebe, to the London feather market. Beebe reported on the sale of four London feather dealers, who, among themselves during a six month period, sold the skins and plumages representing a total of 223,490 birds. One of these firms, Figgis & Co reported that it had sold the skins and plumage of 362 birds-of-paradise, 384 eagles, 206 trogons and 24,800 humming birds. As Stefan Bechtel, author of Mr Hornaday’s War noted:

“Beebe’s report included only the transactions of four firms, for half the year, so the annual total was approaching half a million birds. And that took no account of all the other London dealers, or those in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam or anywhere else.”

There were other causes of bird declines besides plume hunting, among them  what had become a sport in much of small town America: side hunting. Earlier, Hornaday described called it simply “a game of murder.” A group of men and boys, sometimes more than a hundred in number, were divided into two teams, both heavily armed. For a given period of time they would simply “shoot every living thing in sight” for which they would “earn points.” The team with the most points would “win” – whatever that means – a fox was worth 500 points, a mink 150, a heron 150, etc. The report notes that in 1897, in one Thanksgiving side hunt in an Indiana town, fourteen boys killed “fifteen English sparrows, eight chipping sparrows, five blue jays, twenty-seven nuthatches, seventeen downy woodpeckers, fourteen hairy woodpeckers twelve red-billed woodpeckers and two flying squirrels.”

Consider a few of the following prior to the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s passage:

  • As late as the 1880s, several ornithologists (bird experts) estimated that there were more than two billion (2,000,000,000) passenger pigeons in the skies over the United States. The last one died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
  • According to a report Hornaday wrote for the New York Zoological Society in 1898 (The Destruction of Our Birds and Mammals: A Report on the Results of an Inquiry), that even fifteen years earlier that half of all the bird life in the USA had declined with the highest declines in Florida (77%), Connecticut (75%) and Montana (755). The Florida statistics come mostly from the near annihilation of the snowy egret

The Movement To Save The Birds

Although egret numbers plummeted,  when given protection in the 20th century their numbers rebounded. The two groups that began to raise the issue of the bird slaughter were the small group of environmentalists that had emerged in the late 1800s as well as a number of women’s magazines. Prior to 1918, there was wildlife conservation legislation, both national and in some states, however these early laws lacked any enforcement mechanisms rendering them ineffective. In one famous case, that of Yellowstone National Park, the pillage resulting from hunting, trapping and the illegal extraction of minerals and timber was so extensive that Congress had to call on the U.S. military to be deployed for a period of thirty years to stem the destruction. Likewise, as today in so many cases, many of the laws passed prior to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 had been, as Hornaday notes “essentially dictated by hunters themselves to maximize their kills.”

The rise of the bird-preservation movement at the end of the 19th century was in response to the slaughter of birds to adorn women's hats and clothing.

The rise of the bird-preservation movement at the end of the 19th century was in response to the slaughter of birds to adorn women’s hats and clothing.

By the turn of the 20th century the scope of the massacre had become something of a national disgrace in the United States. Serious reform movements were set in motion that would lead to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. There were so many birds, species of birds involved that it affected the whole eco-system from top to bottom. As a result of organized pressure from the American Ornithologists Union and the National Association of Audubon Societies, the Florida legislature passed a model non-bird protection law in 1901 that included the employments of wardens to protect snowy white rookeries, in effect establishing bird sanctuaries. Two years later, President Theodore Roosevelt went further; on March 14, 1903, by executive order, he established the first national wildlife refuge in the United States on Pelican Island to protect egrets and other birds from extinction by plume hunters. There, plume-hunter-guide-turned-game-,warden, Guy Bradley, shot and killed after confronting plume hunters, became one of the nation’s first environmental martyrs. (Bradley and his brother Louis had earlier served as scouts for noted French plume hunter Jean Chevalier (plume hunter) on his Everglades trip. At the time, plume feathers—selling for more than $20 an ounce ($501 in 2011)—were reportedly more valuable per weight than gold. On their expedition, which lasted several weeks, the young men and Chevalier’s party killed 1,397 birds of 36 species. All this is described in great detail in Stuart McIver’s Death in the Everglades: The Murder of Guy Bradley, America’s First Martyr to Environmentalism. University of Florida: 2003)

After Pelican Island, soon thereafter legislation was passed creating preserves to protect nesting birds from plume hunters throughout the southeast. They included Breton National Wildlife Refuge in Breton, Louisiana (1904), Passage Key National Wildlife Refuge in Passage Key, Florida (1905), Shell Keys National Wildlife Refuge in Shell Keys, Louisiana (1907), and Key West National Wildlife Refuge in Key West, Florida (1908). All this was a prelude, a lead up to more extensive national legislation, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Now protected in the United States by law, under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the snowy egret population has rebounded over the past century. That act, building on prior but weaker legislation, makes it unlawful without a waiver to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell birds listed therein (“migratory birds“). Over 800 species are currently on the list. Further, more recent legislation, including international treaties, stipulate protection not only for the birds themselves, but also for habitats and environs necessary for the birds’ survival.

Thus the damage was at least somewhat mitigated. For all they had suffered, the birds fared better than their American cousins, the bison, saving the few remaining herds of which, besides found two of the country’s and the world’s most famous zoos, the Washington DC and the Bronx Zoo in NYC,  would become the central focus of William Temple Hornaday’s adult life. That in Part Two


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