In the May/June issue of The Saturday Evening Post, Barry Yeoman asked the question, “What Do Birds Do for Us?” His answer shows how birds provide so much more than pretty songs and flashes of color in the wilderness. Our feathered friends play integral roles in maintaining the ecological balance that protects us from disease and disaster and keeps healthy food on our collective plate.
But America’s birds are disappearing.
According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, nearly a third of all bird species in America are at risk: 67 species of bird in the U.S. are now endangered, and another 184 are showing declining populations. The situation is particularly grim in Hawaii, which is confronting a “borderline ecological disaster,” the Interior Department says. The islands once hosted 113 unique bird species; today, 71 are extinct and 31 are endangered.
In North America, declining bird populations have several causes: Habitats are being lost to business development and urban sprawl, and the water shortages and droughts that affect humans in dry regions are also challenges for nesting birds.
And then there’s global climate change. Birds aren’t waiting around to see who wins the debates about whether climate change is real; several species have already begun moving north to cooler climates, altering the ecological balance at both ends of their migration.
So far, the losses have been minimal. Only nine bird species have become extinct in North America in modern times. But if the drop in population continues, more than 300 species will be extinct by the end of the century.
The fight to save birds from extinction is not new, as this Post article from 1931 shows.
In the 1890s, the long white feather of the egret became a fashion accessory for ladies’ hats. Hunters began slaughtering birds by the thousands to profit from the market demand. Consequently, egret populations all over the world were being wiped out. In the U.S., the problem was particularly acute in Florida.
But when bird lovers asked for protection of birds and their habitats, they were greeted with skepticism. For generations, Americans had been able to help themselves to a seemingly unlimited supply of game. Thankfully, the conservationists prevailed against this traditional thinking: Protection for birds started with the Lacy Act, which outlawed interstate trade in wildlife killed in violation of state laws. In 1901, Florida passed the Audubon Model Law, which made plume hunting illegal.
In her article below, famed conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas tells how concerned Americans, united behind the head of the Audubon Societies, stopped the slaughter of egrets in Florida before it was too late. And, as Ms. Douglas relates, when Americans learned of the problem, the aigrette feather suddenly became unfashionable, and the bird could nest without risk of annihilation.
By Marjory Stoneman Douglas
Originally published on March 14, 1931
Thousands of wings poured up the height and brilliance of the Florida sky; sheets, waves, ribbons, festoons; rushing, airy acres of birds, all shining and turning under the sun. Each to his own kind, they kept their ranks separate, moving each in his own unique manner — little blue herons, great white herons, night herons, black-and-white ibises, Louisiana herons, Ward’s herons, snowy egrets, terns, green herons, water turkeys; here and there a few stately, sailing, great white egrets; and once a flash of pure rose color, brilliant in all that blue and white — a lonely going, roseate spoonbill, the last of his ancient thousands. A few men in a boat below all that, in one of those remote, brackish rivers that wander through the vast reach of mangrove in that last end of Florida, sat spellbound, looking up. The free leap and flight of the great, free birds brought to them the same curious lift and surge of delight. They had come hundreds of miles just to experience that. They said, “Oh!” and “By George, did you ever see anything like it?” and, “Look, look, there come more of them. More of them.”
The lifting and passing and wheeling and settling of the birds went on until the sunset had darkened its great fires. The men went back in silence to their houseboat, anchored in one of the deeper turns of the river.
The Last of the Egrets
But even through dinner they were unable to think or talk about anything but the birds. They were stirred in that curious way men always have been stirred by the sight of many wings, secure above them in that remote and perilous crystal. They were a group of Government officials and their guests, come to inspect that part of Florida as a possible national park, under the charge of Horace Albright, head of the National Park Service. Among them, a short, stocky, vigorous figure, was a man with keen, dark eyes and a tight and fighting jaw, to whom they turned in all the talk about birds; a man who knew every bird that lifted over the mangrove tops, knew every feather on them, knew their habits, their mannerisms, their flight, almost every bird thought that moved in those light, feathered heads. He was T. Gilbert Pearson, LL.D., president of the National Association of Audubon Societies. It had been through his relentless effort, by way of the National Association, that numbers of those birds, notably the ibises and the egrets, were alive at all. The single roseate spoonbill, of a possible 300 left over after the ruthless slaughter of tens of thousands of that rare and lovely creature that had once filled the east coast of Florida with its living color, was alive, probably, through his efforts. But he had not been able to keep the flamingo from deserting the coast of Florida, which it used to visit in thousands during its winter migration. And there were not very many of the long white — the great, plume bearing — egrets. There were a few, and those owed their lives to the work of this man.
He told the others a little of the fight to save the egret, after dinner. And then a startling thing happened. A man came to the boat with news which the captain immediately called Doctor Pearson to hear. A thousand great white egrets — the one which bears on its head and shoulders the exquisite white feathers for which it was once slaughtered by the tens of thousands — had just settled not very far away. That 1,000 was almost the last large flock of egrets left in the United States. And the startling news was that some mackerel fishermen, who had been watching for the settling of the egrets, were waiting down the coast until the houseboat of Government officials should leave the next morning, before they shot up the entire flock. It had been a long time since Doctor Pearson, for the National Association, had gained a hard-fought battle over the milliners and the indifference of lawmakers and the public to make it illegal to wear or sell plumes in this country.
Protection That Fails to Protect
Women have forgotten about wearing aigrettes. The general public and even the people of Florida have taken it for granted that the birds are protected. Yet here was this 1,000 about to be slaughtered. And for all anything anyone there could do or say — Doctor Pearson, or Horace Albright and the members of the National Park Commission, or Ruth Bryan Owen, member of Congress from Florida — it is possible this 1000 was exterminated.
Doctor Pearson immediately hired two wardens to guard them. The government officials burst into hot speech. Doctor Bumpus, formerly president of Tufts College and a man of forceful and honeyed tongue, went over to warn off the mackerel fishermen, who spat over the side and smiled and nodded, and stayed just where they were. Doctor Pearson himself was swept by such anger, bred of his fighting Quaker spirit, his years of service to the birds, and the curious feeling of powerlessness before the unconquerable forces of destruction, that he stumped up and down the deck, uttering words such as these, which I took down on the spot for such use as this:
“Apparently the people of this country are definitely determined to destroy the last egret in the state of Florida for the paltry sum that may be obtained from selling the plumes,” Doctor Pearson said. “The colony these men are preparing to raid after we go is one of the last of the large egret colonies in the state. Today I visited the largest rookery of herons and egrets left in the United States, in the upper waters of the Shark River. I am reliably informed that men engaged in the fishing business have on three occasions shot out this rookery.”
Eight Men Against an Army
“I learn from unquestioned sources that as many as 5000 black-and-white ibises, old and young, have been killed at one time, packed in salt and, with hundreds of heron and ibis eggs, illegally shipped and bootlegged among various settlements of this state. I have this evening made arrangements to employ two men in the hope of being able in a measure to guard these birds. But I am deeply incensed at the lack of interest exhibited by the people in preservation of wildlife in this most magnificent and naturally prolific area of breeding water birds found within the boundaries of the United States. This feeling is based on thirty years of observation and constant work throughout North America as president of our association. We already have expended nearly $40,000 in our efforts to protect plume birds of this state, but it seems to have been largely a matter of love’s labor lost.”
Now, as far as Doctor Pearson and the state game warden know, the guards appointed are vigilant. Eight men in all, including those last two, have similar positions guarding bird colonies, rookeries and reservations in the state of Florida. Named officially as Federal agents, they are paid by the National Association of Audubon Societies. But the difficulty is that they have to cover an enormous territory of Everglades and mangrove swamp land, penetrable for the most part by shallow-draft boats. Eight men against an unknown number of native fishermen, and hunters, and yachtsmen from the North. Egrets, herons, ibises, roseate spoonbills are killed for every reason from food for fishermen’s children to plumes for the plume markets of Havana and Europe or the pleasure of shooting a rare bird and holding it for a few moments, dead in the hands, a part of the lavish treasury of the sky. There is absolutely no way for the wardens or the people of the state of Florida to check on the amount of the destruction still going on.
Yet revealing incidents happen. Last fall, in Miami, a boy was arrested as a housebreaker. In his possession were thirty as beautiful egret skins, or scalps, as any milliner of the old days, or milliner of Europe today, would wish to see. The boy said he had found them in one of the houses he had robbed.
No charge was made against him on the possession of the plumes, because he was found guilty and sent to prison for housebreaking. But someone shot those birds. The plumes were in the height of midnesting condition, which means they were shot with young in the nest. And for thirty such skins discovered in this casual manner hundreds are smuggled out to the Havana market.
As for the fascinating black-and-white ibis, which is the true ibis of the Nile, its tale is uncomplicated by any national history such as the egret possesses. The ibis spends all its time in Florida; therefore, it is a nonmigratory bird and not protected by Federal law.
Boat captains will tell of a boatload of white ibis bodies, shot by visiting sportsmen and later taken to Key West and sold for meat. There are people who have seen salted ibis meat being shipped. And yet it is practically impossible to get affidavits in order to bring the matter to court attention. The Everglades are too large. Only the eight lonely game wardens, or fewer than that in years when the national association is poor, protect the ibis. No one else seems to care.
The Federal Government, which makes the wardens Federal agents on Doctor Pearson’s recommendation, pays no salaries. The state of Florida does not. Like most states, Florida maintains a state game warden, but he is handicapped by the lack of men and money. So the ibises are shot by fishermen and visiting yachtsmen. Their rookeries are growing fewer and smaller. A rookery of black-and-white ibises, with the strange parent birds standing motionlessly on guard beside their huge stick nests, in which the baby ibises squawk and stare — the queerest, fuzziest-headed, most awkward, most fascinating baby birds in the world — is one of the most unusual sights in this country. Yet they are being destroyed relentlessly.
The Long Struggle for Protection
It is unbelievably difficult to combat this seemingly implacable destruction of our rare American birds. Man’s delight in birds seems universal, but so is their destruction. Delight and destruction, destruction and delight — they seem to go hand in hand. But the destruction is the more active and the more lasting.
Nowadays, of course, it is the inertia of the public, which does not pay attention to such things unless sharply prodded, and the greed and thoughtlessness of comparatively small, but very deadly, groups of hunters and sportsmen, that are responsible. But in the days when Doctor Pearson, as secretary of the National Association of Audubon Societies, began the long years of passionate struggle which resulted in even the partial protection of the egret, to take the most noteworthy example, the opposition to protection was definite and bitterly intense. It was of two kinds then — opposition from the plume hunters, who went on killing, and from the milliners. Birds were in those days, to the American public, just about what they are in the Latin countries of Europe today — that is, nothing — “res nullius,” to use the Latin phrase for the old statement of the Latin law, which held that the birds of the air belonged to no one. And so, to everyone.
The struggle to save the egrets, and to make the United States a little more conscious of the real value, to them, of the birds of this continent, began in 1887, when a little group of bird lovers under the leadership of George Bird Grinnell got together in an association under the title of Audubon Society. That, in turn, had been inspired by an organization of professional bird men, in 1886, called the American Ornithologists Union, which had as its purpose the study of the economic value of birds. This union grew into the Bureau of Biological Survey of the Department of Agriculture, at Washington, which has accomplished a work of inestimable value in a series of studies of birds, their feeding habits, their life cycles, their migrations, their breeding grounds. But the first little Audubon Society did very little except to send around cards which they asked the ladies of those days to sign, pledging themselves not to wear feathers in their hats. No one paid dues, so that the society died promptly. In 1898 the Audubon Society of Massachusetts was organized with about fifteen members. Other independent, small groups, calling themselves Audubon Societies, were formed in various states, chiefly for the purpose of meeting and reading papers about birds. There was no particular cohesion between these groups, and not much active force.
Doctor Pearson taught biology at Guilford College from 1899 to 1901. In 1902 he received a call to substitute in biology and geology at the Normal and Industrial College for Women, of North Carolina. He was just a young Quaker, with his head filled with an unusual amount of exact knowledge about American birds and plants, and some ideas about teaching that knowledge. In the three weeks in which he was supposed to substitute at the state college he found that none of the young ladies in his classes, 87 percent of whom were to be public-school teachers, knew the names of the trees outside the classroom window, or the birds in them. He asked permission from the president to take his classes out into the 300 acres of woodland that were college property, which he would use as his laboratory and his textbook. He was told to do what he liked. He remained at the state college for a few years as the inaugurator of a new and startling method of teaching biology; a method which was to become the accepted way of nature study in American schools.
The First Bird Protection Laws
That does not seem to have much to do with the story of the egret, but it began there. For in November, 1902, Doctor Pearson took a bill to the North Carolina legislature which called for the first protection of song and insectivorous birds in this country. It was reported favorably by a subcommittee which invited the keen-eyed young Quaker teacher to address the legislature. He did. He made the first of those addresses which legislatures and Audubon Societies and audiences of all kinds about the country know — unsentimental, brilliant, hard-hitting arguments for bird protection. The law was carried by a vote of only two, but it was carried.
As a result of that, young Doctor Pearson was asked to read a paper before the committee of Audubon Societies of the American Ornithologists Union. He went, clothing his awe at being sent for by such an august body with the only cutaway coat he had, which had been his wedding coat. But when he arrived in New York he was astonished to find that the Audubon Societies were hardly functioning at all, except in a polite, social way. In North Carolina only had any definite legislative steps been taken. He made his address about legislation for bird protection. Nothing happened immediately, except that he was sent for in a hurry to help put some bird laws through the Tennessee legislature. He went to Tennessee in spite of a train wreck and no spare time at all. But with the aid of a private automobile, he arrived at the last moment, made his talk and the laws were passed.
By this time ornithologists and practical bird men had heard that things were stirring. In 1904, Mr. Albert Wilcox, of New York, decided to incorporate an organization for the protection of wild life in America. He heard about the young Quaker teacher in North Carolina, and sent for him. Still wearing the same cutaway coat, Doctor Pearson sat through a meeting in New York in which papers were read on the destruction of the giraffe in Africa. He made his own address, which was full of nothing but facts about the destruction of song birds in America — of robins sold for food in Philadelphia markets, of the wholesale destruction of gulls and terns for feathers, the shipping of gull eggs by the schooner loads to public markets, and finally of the killing of the almost unthought-of egret for the aigrettes that were everywhere then on women’s hats. On the second of January, 1905, the National Association of Audubon Societies was incorporated. Mr. William Dutcher was elected president.
Doctor Pearson began the war on plume hunting and the feather industry almost immediately — a war which was to reach the headlines and front pages of the New York newspapers, a war which resounded from New York to Albany and to Pittsburgh and to Washington, and had its echo in the egret rookeries of Florida, the milliner shops in Paris and London. And it is not over yet.
But it was not until 1910 that the Audubon Societies were able to present a bill to the New York legislature which would stop the sale of plumes. Under Mr. Dutcher’s leadership and with the active efforts and untiring stimulus of Doctor Pearson, Audubon Societies were formed all over the country. Thousands of leaflets on birds and on egrets were written and distributed. School children were organized. The National Association was growing into a body of American public opinion to be reckoned with.
The egret was Doctor Pearson’s most constant concern. Time after time he made trips to Florida to get the facts about them. The truth was all that he wanted, and he found it. He tramped and waded and poled a boat through the almost entirely unknown Everglades of Florida. He slept at the campfires of plume hunters. He nursed a family of fishermen and plume hunters in an epidemic on the West Coast of Florida, and was in turn nursed by them when he broke a hip. He fished with the natives and studied endlessly the fascinating rookeries of all kinds of water birds. His information, so acquired, was exact.
The facts he wrote into Audubon society leaflets and sent about the country. It was almost the first time that the general public had ever heard of the egret rookeries. They knew only aigrettes — the exquisite white feathers which were everywhere on women’s hats, spelling smartness and distinction for those days.
What the leaflets taught them was this: There are two kinds of egret, both of the heron family. They are the large egret, which stands more than three feet high, called the long white; and the small one, called the snowy egret. The plumes of the long white are more than a foot long, and straight. On the snowy egret they are not more than six inches, very delicate, and curving slightly at the tips. They are nuptial plumes, and appear before the nesting season, on both males and females. They are dropped after the young are hatched and are getting bigger. By summer the forty or fifty nuptial plumes on each bird are shed. They are at their height of beauty just after the young are hatched.
The Plumes of the Snowy Egret
Egrets used to breed in large numbers in the swampy regions of the Southern States. But now they are too timid and too few to go far. The heart of the Florida Everglades alone holds their infrequent rookeries. The 1000 that came in at Shark River last year, which may have been shot out, was the largest flock that has been seen in Florida for some time.
Even in the old days, before their greatest destruction began, the egrets were shy and difficult to hunt, except at the breeding season. But then the feathers are at their best. Plume hunters are in the habit of watching a circling flock of egrets for days, because until they are completely ready to settle down and build nests and lay eggs, they never feed where they will eventually nest. And even after they start nesting they are shy and easily frightened off. The plume hunters know all the signs of restlessness. They wait until a rookery is what they call “ripe” — that is, until the parent birds have built their funny stick nests on the flat tops of the mangroves, laid the four or five large, pale-turquoise eggs and then hatched out the queer, fuzzy-headed, young egrets. That is the time when that curious instinct deepens in shy bird breasts which all the higher forms of life seem to know, the time when, no matter how frightened, or even how badly wounded, a mother or father bird will not leave those two or three absurd bundles of awkwardness and wide beaks and pin feathers which are their children.
The Long Fight for the Egret
That makes everything fine for the plume hunters. It is a matter of a few hours to shoot up a rookery of 400 or 500 nesting birds. There is great clamor and confusion, but the parents, even though they spring in the air, always come back. The young are not molested, unless accidentally shot, but with the adult birds gone, it is not long before they all die off quietly, of hunger, or cotton-mouthed moccasins, or fish crows, or red ants, or just squawking themselves over the rim of the nests and into the water. It is, finally, and with a remarkable completeness, the end of those 400 egrets and of their perpetuation. In the high days of plume hunting, the profits on a rookery of 400 or 500 birds were about $10,000. Market prices are lower today, of course, since the American woman has forgotten about aigrettes, but there is quite a nice little business in South America, and the milliner trade in Europe is beginning to use plumes again. Such lovely things as the nuptial plumes of the egret can be sold almost any time — undercover, of course. Tourists to Florida, yachtsmen, curio seekers, amateur students of nature with a gun, sometimes buy them.
But back in 1910, when the National Association of Audubon Societies and Doctor Pearson began the drive to make the selling illegal, 16,000 milliners rose up to declare such a law beyond all bounds of reason. They had $20,000,000 invested in feathers and plumes. They said it was only a bunch of cranks and sentimentalists and schoolteachers who wanted to interfere with a free people’s legitimate business. The milliners went to Albany.
Doctor Pearson also went up to Albany for the Audubon Societies. They had no attorney. He made his addresses. He was granted a hearing by Governor Hughes. And the bill went through without the loss of a vote in either house.
Then the milliners opened branch offices in Philadelphia and the fight was transferred to Pennsylvania. The milliners used the same arguments they had used in New York, and the same methods of attack. But Doctor Pearson went to the legislature in Pennsylvania and the same thing happened — the bill passed without a dissenting vote.
The law in New York was to have gone into effect on the first of July of the following year. In January of that year, on midnight of the day before, Doctor Pearson received word from Albany that the legislature was about to repeal the act. He gathered himself and his forces, took the train to Albany and licked the milliners for the last time, by a few votes. In 1913, the Audubon Society started a move in Congress to prohibit the importation of feathers and the bodies of wild birds, and so, after years of campaigning, there was at last a federal law.
For awhile there was a great deal of public indignation, strange as that may seem now. The customs authorities took the aigrettes off the hats of women returning from abroad. Here and there throughout the country, aroused bird lovers, chiefly women, had a wonderful time speaking to other women about the feathers in their hats. But public sentiment was creeping gradually around to a little feeling of shame about dead birds. Four chests of plumes — meaning thousands of them — were taken from women’s hats by customs officials in the next year. But when the appraisers looked at the plumes, they declared they were all imitation. In that case, of course, the women could have their plumes back. It was so advertised and announced in the papers by the customs authorities. And not a single woman of all that lot showed up to claim them. Aigrettes were at last and definitely unfashionable.
But, of course, laws in New York State and Pennsylvania, or in all the other states which began passing various sorts of laws for bird protection, as well as the Federal laws, were not enough to bring back great flocks of birds. Laws cannot do everything. Protection of a definite and practical character had to be provided for. And that was the endless job of Doctor Pearson, for the Audubon Societies, to secure. That work, of course, began back in the beginning of the National Association work.
In 1905, a law to protect the nongame birds, such as herons and pelicans, was passed in the Florida legislature, through the instigation of the society. Below Sebastian, on the East Coast of Florida, there was a small island which was about the largest pelican rookery on the East Coast. It was well known to fishermen and yachtsmen, who used to send small boats ashore on the island and collect whole boatloads of eggs. Shooting the pelicans for sport was one of the attractions of that part of the coast. And there were even collectors of pelican skins. One wealthy yachtsman, in particular, had 200 pelicans shot, so that a certain small part of the skin and feathers might be taken to make a down robe for his wife. At that rate the pelicans were being thinned out rapidly.
Offending Esthetic Birds
There were, however, no teeth in the Florida law, and no funds with which adequately to protect the pelican rookery. Doctor Pearson, therefore, went direct to President Roosevelt and got him to issue an executive order making Pelican Island a Federal bird reservation, which the Audubon Society would pay to protect with a warden and a boat. This was done. But Doctor Pearson adds a neat touch in telling the story. It seems that he ordered a large sign made and put up on the island, Federal Bird Reservation. It was large and conspicuous, so that it could be seen by passing yachts. But the pelicans themselves did not like it. They left Pelican Island as one pelican, and never came back to it. In the pelican rookeries which were later protected the Audubon Society had to be careful to use small and tasteful signs. And so, after years of campaigning, there was at last a Federal law.
But that was the beginning of the Federal bird reservation idea, which established bird reservations wherever colonies or rookeries were found, always maintained by the Audubon Society funds. Wardens are Federal officers, but paid and equipped by the association, since the Federal Government makes no such provision. When President Roosevelt went out of office he had established by executive order fifty-one bird reservations. The next Presidents followed his example, until there have been more than seventy at one time; the larger number in the Gulf States and Florida, where the herons and ibises and pelicans and roseate spoonbills and ducks and man-o’-war birds breed.
But in Florida, even after the passing of laws, the establishment of bird reservations and the maintenance of game wardens, the war against the egret and the ibis went on. In May of 1913 an attempt was made to raid the rookery of egrets at Alligator Bay, in Florida. Two wardens were guarding it — F.W. Williams and Charles Allen. Before dawn four men made their way into the rookery and commenced shooting at the birds as soon as the light was bright enough. Williams was away at the time, but Allen and another man went in chase of the plume hunters, who promptly started firing at them. Allen returned to shore, got his rifle and crawled through the swamp to a position from which he could fire at the other boat. After about twelve shots the plume hunters left. Seven egrets had been killed and the plumes stripped.
The Battle of Alligator Bay
The next year this rookery at Alligator Bay, the last egret colony of any importance on the southwest coast of Florida, where once the birds nested on all the islands of the bay, and in the mangrove bushes of the shore back to the saw grass, was not protected, owing to a total lack of funds. That year the rookery was shot up and practically all the birds were killed. The next year a warden was maintained and 400 pairs of egrets came back; only a fraction of the great number which had previously nested there.
In 1916, the Alligator Bay egret rookery was destroyed again, and in a most ingenious manner. The society had no funds that year for the maintenance of wardens. Two men voluntarily took possession of the Alligator Bay rookery, stating that if the association would pay them, no harm would come to the birds. Their plan was to camp on the island until the colony became ripe, and then kill the birds. But just before these two men began shooting operations, three other plume hunters arrived. There was a rifle battle and the original two were chased off. The three victors proceeded to shoot up all the birds and completed their work by cutting down all the bushes, piling them up and burning them. The Alligator Bay rookery, therefore, became a thing of the past. About $600 would have maintained wardens.
As a climax to the whole desperate business, two of the Federal wardens, maintained by the association, were killed protecting egret colonies in the next few years. Their killers were never brought to justice. The war was real war; grimmer in Florida even than in the legislatures of New York or Pennsylvania.
It goes on. Last year eight wardens were employed by the association in Florida, two at the Gator Lake ibis rookery — probably the most remarkable bird rookery of any kind in this country — two at Pinecrest, off the Tamiami Trail, which cuts through the Everglades, where numbers of ibises, herons and egrets have been gathering. Then there were the two employed to guard the egrets at Shark River, and two up the state, working under the supervision of Warden Kelsey, the United States game protector for Florida. These eight have done excellent service the past year, as far as they have been able to cover the huge territory. But this year the Audubon Society has no funds to maintain wardens after May first, so that it is quite likely that the destruction will begin again.
And now the battle against the plume hunters has become an international affair. The United States is the only country with adequate laws against the wearing and the possession of egret plumes. In Europe, it is another matter, although England, Holland and Germany are doing splendid work along the line of bird protection of all kinds. But in the Latin countries the tale is not good. There is a marked movement among Paris milliners to encourage the use of plumes on women’s hats. This would directly affect the prices of Florida egret skins and is one of the gravest menaces. At the Geneva conference of the International Committee for Bird Preservation in 1928 the milliners of France, Germany and Austria brought pressure to bear on their delegates to use their influence to force the conference not to go on record against the traffic in feathers, because they felt there were encouraging signs of the industry’s coming back. So, the Geneva conference was unable to take any adequate action against the use of plumes in Europe.
Bird Slaughter in Southern Europe
At the Seventh International Ornithological Congress, held in Amsterdam, in June, 1930, Doctor Pearson showed to the delegates motion pictures of egrets taken in Florida, in an attempt to sell the idea of egret protection to the world. After making a most energetic appeal for concerted international protection, Doctor Pearson obtained only a lukewarm resolution asking the governments of European countries to do something about protection.
In Mediterranean countries there is no protection for any sort of bird, not to mention any restriction on aigrettes. In Italy and Spain, song birds and insectivorous birds are shot and netted by the wholesale. Blinded birds act as decoys for others. Quails are caught in Egypt and shipped to the markets of the Mediterranean, in such quantities that they are rapidly being exterminated as a breeding species. Such books as Axel Munthe’s recent The Story of San Michele describe at vividly unpleasant length the practice of netting birds on the island of Capri, which is typical of the prevailing attitude of mind of Mediterranean countries.
But nearer to us than that is South America and the Caribbean, where bird protection does not exist in any form. Probably the worst example of that, beyond the plume hunters of Venezuela, is the destruction of the flamingo that exists in Cuba. One of the largest rookeries of the flamingos, which do not breed in the United States, but were migrants to Florida until they were hunted enough to make them shy of returning, is on a small island off the coast of Cuba near Camaguey. Flamingo hunters literally herd the rather stupid, breeding flamingos into schooners, take them to Camaguey and neighboring towns, and herd them up the main streets, where they are sold for the equivalent of fifty cents a head and have their necks wrung for the family dinner. The only unmolested flamingos near Florida nest in the uninhabited islands of the Bahamas.
It is undoubtedly true that the United States is much more advanced in the matter of bird protection than any other country, which is a matter of much pride. The National Association of Audubon Societies lists thousands of active members and has been a great force in the attitude toward bird and wildlife protection in this country. It has been active in securing legislation. It distributes more than 5,000,000 pages of educational bird literature annually. It has conducted surveys to discover and protect the breeding colonies of ducks, terns, gulls, herons, egrets, ibises, and so on. It organizes 350,000 school children annually into Junior Audubon Clubs. It sends out exhibits, lecturers and supplies to schools. Its offices serve as a clearing house for information on natural history. It encourages the establishment of bird sanctuaries, Federal or private. It has worked with other agencies to create and guard reservations for valuable game animals such as deer, elk, antelope and bison. It financed the establishment of the 30,000-acre Charles Sheldon reservation for antelope and sage hens in Nevada. It is active in the creation and helps support the International Committee for Bird Preservation, composed of the leading scientific and bird-protection societies in twenty-one European countries.
And it has accomplished many specific acts of bird protection in specific cases. There was the saving of the brown pelican of the Gulf States. The brown pelican is one of the most likable and picturesque birds we have. As an attraction for tourists, it is worth money to states interested in tourist trade. During the war it was stated erroneously that the brown pelican was eating up all the valuable fish of the Gulf, which would do better as food for people. It was urged that a bounty be issued for pelicans in the Gulf States and the species exterminated. Doctor Pearson immediately made a long survey of actual conditions. He was able to report on the actual amount of fish eaten, which was so slight that the idea was immediately dropped and the brown pelicans were unmolested.
Private Bird Sanctuaries
He has conducted an investigation of the bounty offered in Alaska for the killing of the American bald eagle, and is making a special effort to educate the children of Alaska to the value of live birds over dead ones.
In addition, there are a number of fine reservations and bird sanctuaries throughout the country, owned privately and under the care of the association, or presented to the association outright for maintenance. Some of these are the Roosevelt bird sanctuary at Oyster Bay, under the supervision of Dr. Eugene Swope; the Orange Lake sanctuary in Alachua County, Florida; and the magnificent Paul J. Rainey Wildlife sanctuary of 26,000 acres of marshland on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, west of New Orleans, presented to the association by Mrs. Grace Rainey Rogers, and endowed by her. Here large quantities of grain are fed to tens of thousands of blue geese, lesser snow geese and all sorts of ducks. Fifty-nine other sanctuaries are under the association’s care. Under the indefatigable and intelligent leadership of Doctor Pearson who has been for some years its president, as he is also president of the International Committee for Bird Preservation, the association is constantly trying to widen its activities.
It is urging the creation of the Everglades National Park in Florida, which would solve the problem of the egret, heron and ibis. It is straining every effort to bring other countries into the movement for bird protection. Since, unless it is international, it cannot be entirely effective. So there are forces on the side of the delight in birds, as there are forces for their destruction. The struggle goes on.