The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Monday, 28 February 2022 13:46

(Part 1) Flight to safety: Herons barely survived a bloody fashion trend

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Thompson GB Heron 1Great blue herons and other heron species were reduced to a handful of rookeries after numbers plummeted because of high demand for their plumage.  Courtesy Betty Thompson

Herons were almost a victim of their own beauty

plume. noun. a long, soft feather, or arrangement of feathers used by a bird for display 

During our Gilded Age of opulence and corruption, members of polite society wore alligator shoes, top hats made from beaver pelts, ivory buttons, whalebone corsets and dead foxes draped around their shoulders. After all, status had its price and the surrounding wild lands were bountiful.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, most fashion-conscious women would not be seen in public without a hat adorned with feathers. In 1915, at the height of this fashion craze, an ounce of plumes sold for $32, the same going rate as an ounce of gold. The most highly coveted feathers were “aigrettes,” which are the long, silky white nuptial plumes of egrets and great blue herons. Plume hunters could make a sizable sum of money for a day’s work with a gun. 

Worldwide there are about 63 species in the heron family, which includes not only the herons but also the egrets and bitterns. Egrets are snow white. They get their name from those nuptial aigrettes grown during the breeding season.

The center of the hat-making industry in this country was in New York City. Plumes collected from all over the world were routinely shipped there. On April 15, 1912 the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic. We have all seen the movie and know about the plight of the passengers. But little is known of what the great unsinkable ocean liner was carrying in its cargo hold bound for America. The manifest survived, and along with potatoes and sardines there were 40 cases of plumes being shipped to the milliners’ shops in New York even though the state had passed a law outlawing the sale and possession of feathers in 1910.

Three years later, the U.S. Congress passed similar legislation and the feathered fashion began to wane, none too soon for the herons and egrets. Wearing a hat with feathers slowly became taboo.

Still the fashion industry held on as long as it could. As late as 1919, Knoxville’s daily newspaper was running fashion tips such as, “Feathers always smart for spring.” A pair of illustrations showing women in geyser-like headpieces was captioned, “Here are two of the latest arrivals from Paris and like the hats which came over earlier in the season they make a charming use of feathers.”

In this country entire heron and egret rookeries were wiped out.

Southern Florida became the last bastion of heron rookeries, but they were on a slippery slope to extinction.

With protection, time and a change of fashion, the overall population of herons began to slowly recover and spread northward.

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Last modified on Sunday, 23 October 2022 18:24
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