Birding with Jerry Hall: Egrets and eagles were once shot by the thousands — all in the name of fashion
The snowy egret and the golden eagle are two very nice birds that are admired for their grace and beauty. The egret is especially lovely when decked out in breeding plumage and the eagle is quite a sight as it soars majestically high in the sky.
Both birds were once shot and killed with ruthless impunity.
The snowy egret and the slightly larger great egret were in high demand by hat makers in the early 1900s. Fashionable women wore hats bedecked with feathers, wings and even entire taxidermied birds. Especially in demand were the gossamer feathers the birds sported during mating season. Hunters killed and skinned the mature birds, leaving the orphaned hatchlings to starve or be eaten by predators.
According to one account, it took 200 plumes to weigh an ounce and a pound of feathers could cover 6,000 square feet. In 1903, women were bidding the price up to $32 per ounce, which was twice what an ounce of gold would bring that year. An auction in London in 1902 advertised 1,708 packages, for a total of 48,420 ounces. Calculating four dead birds to the ounce, this auction alone required the killing of 193,680 egrets. While egrets were the favored bird, an estimated 50 North American species were being slaughtered for their feathers.
More recently, the golden eagle was being shot in an effort to eradicate the bird from the Big Bend area of far west Texas. Roy Bedichek has written about how sheep raisers banded together in the 1940s, to wipe out a bird they thought was preying upon lambs. “A skilled aviator armed with a sawed-off shotgun, flying in a tiny monoplane, was employed full time,” wrote Bedichek. “He reports killing 1,875 golden eagles within two years. I think there is no other record of eagle slaughter which anywhere near equals this one.”
Big Bend National Park, created in 1944, contained 801,163 acres and was larger than the state of Rhode Island. The park's regulations against hunting birds and wildlife helped save the golden eagle, although its numbers were much diminished.
Egrets and other birds were saved after Congress passed the Migratory Bird Act, on March 4, 1913, outlawing market hunting and forbidding interstate transport of birds.
A subsequent piece of legislation, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, was upheld on appeal by the Supreme Court. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the majority, said the protection of birds was in the “national interest.”
He noted that without such measures, one could foresee a day when no birds would survive for any power – state or federal – to regulate.