Plume Hunters

Hats are generally practical. They keep heads warm, faces shaded and bald spots covered. There was nothing practical about ladies’ hats in the Victorian era, though. Victorian Ladies’ hats were large, unwieldy accessories perched on heads with the help of painful little instruments called “hat pins.” These big hats were decorated with all sorts of baubles including bird feathers. The more feathers, the better the hat. Entire stuffed birds sometimes decorated hats.

During two strolls in a Manhattan neighborhood in 1886, Frank Chapman, ornithologist with New York’s Museum of Natural History, spotted feathers from forty different types of birds, all on hats. Breeding plumage from egrets were the most sought-after and most fashionable. Egrets attract their mates with long, wispy feathers during breeding season. Victorian women used egret feathers for the same purpose.

Egrets and other shorebirds are easy prey during breeding season, when their feathers are at their finest. They gather to mate, build nests and raise young in huge numbers in out-of-the-way marshes and mangrove islands. Here, plume hunters could bag hundreds of birds in one outing. They shot the mothers and fathers and left behind abandoned eggs and starving chicks. Hunters wiped out entire rookeries of nesting birds and were paid well for it. Feathers were worth, literally, more than gold, and as birds became scarcer, the price of their feathers soared.

Big hats were big business. The millinery industry employed 83,000 people in 1900. When cries of cruelty to egrets started hurting the hat business, milliners traded egret feathers for tern, grebes, white pelicans and albatross feathers. Millions of birds were killed for their feathers each year.

Conservation groups, including Audubon Society and American Ornithologists Union, worked hard to end the bird slaughter. They encouraged Congress to pass the Lacey Act in 1900 which prohibited interstate trade of wildlife hunted in violation of state laws. They were instrumental in outlawing plume hunting in Florida one year later. In 1903, conservation groups encouraged President Theodore Roosevelt to designate Pelican Island as the first federal bird reservation in what was to become National Wildlife Refuge System. Laws alone did not protect birds. Conservation groups hired armed wardens to protect important bird rookeries. This was dangerous work, and two wardens were shot and killed on the job. Paul Kroegel, a Sebastian resident who helped establish Pelican Island as a preserve, was hired as the first national wildlife refuge manager with a salary of $1 per year paid for by the Audubon Society.

Pelican Island is a small mangrove island in the Indian River lagoon near Sebastian on Florida’s east coast. It covered five acres in 1900, but eroded to only half this size by 2000. The shoreline has been stabilized to protect Pelican Island from further erosion and to build the island back up over time. The island is named for the thousands of brown pelicans that use the island year round. Fifteen other species of birds nest and raise young on the island, and 140 species use the refuge to roost, feed and hang out. Today, the island and surrounding 5400+ acres of lagoon and uplands make up the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. This was the first of 55 bird reservations and game preserves set aside by Teddy Roosevelt in a program that now includes 563 National Wildlife Refuges.

In 1910, the plume hunting trade ended in the United States though it continued longer in Central and South America. New laws protecting birds, the establishment of wildlife refuges and wardens that guarded them certainly helped. Many probably realized that birds in the wild are lovelier than feathered hats. Fashions end, and this is one that should never resurface.

The good news is that bird populations have rebounded. Shorebirds have recovered from severe losses. Egrets are once again a common yet spectacular site. The hunters are gone, but there is a new threat to shore birds: plastic, specifically monofilament fishing line. A friend of mine paddled out recently to an island that is heavily used by birds in the Indian River lagoon. He found twelve dead birds tangled in fishing line, dangling from mangrove branches. He cut the birds out then painstakingly cut and removed all the monofilament line from among the branches. Bird carcasses eventually decompose, but plastic line remains for a long time, ready to entangle and kill more birds. To save birds, remove monofilament fishing line. To save birds and countless other creatures, remove all the plastic waste you find along shores. BlueTube can help. Look for BlueTubes at waterfront parks, boat ramps and beaches. Grab a bag, pick up plastic and throw it away. Add your clean, used plastic bags to the BlueTubes and help everyone keep shorebirds safe and our environment clean.