The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

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

Written by

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.

Rate this item
(1 Vote)
Published in News

Related items

  • Monarch butterflies, an ephemeral but regular glimpse of beauty, are fluttering toward extinction
    in News

     Bales Monarch on coneflowerA monarch butterfly, recently declared endangered despite decades of conservation, is seen atop a coneflower. Stephen Lyn Bales

    Dramatic monarch declines mean the bell tolls for we

    KNOXVILLE — Monarch butterflies are ephemeral by nature. The orange and black dalliances that flitter through our lives, our yards, and our countryside like motes of dust are here one minute and gone the next. We pause for a few seconds to watch the “flutter-bys” and then move on.

    For about all of the Lepidopteran family, where they come from, where they go, their raison d'être, we don’t ask. They are winged wisps that pass through our busy lives. But that is not true with this orange and black butterfly, named to honor King William III of England, the Prince of Orange. But two people did ask.

    Norah and Fred Urquhart lived in Southern Canada and in the late 1930s they noticed that the monarch butterflies seemed to all be fluttering south this time of the year. Could they possibly be migrating and if so, where did they go? The notion that a butterfly might migrate south for the winter seemed hard to fathom. Yes, broad-winged hawks migrate. But a flimsy butterfly?

  • Hellbender Press nets two top awards from Society of Professional Journalists

    KNOXVILLE — Hellbender Press took home two awards from the 2021 Golden Press Card contest sponsored by the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists.

    Hellbender Press was recognized with two first-place awards for East Tennessee digital journalism: The Hal DeSelm Papers and Requiem for the Lord God Bird

  • (Part 2) Flight to safety: Life finds a way like a great blue heron
    in News

    Thompson GB Heron 2A great blue heron is seen above a nest in the Tennessee River Valley. Herons moved northward to the valley from tiny remaining Florida rookeries after the birds were annihilated in the early 20th century for hat decorations. Betty Thompson

    After their kind almost vanished, great blue herons took a minute to take to the Tennessee Valley. Now they are here in a big way. 

    “Life breaks free, it expands to new territories, and crashes through barriers painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh, well, there it is,” said Jeff Goldblum’s Malcolm in ‘Jurassic Park.’ “Life finds a way.”

    In the early 20th century, after it became illegal to hunt for feathers, as referenced in this previous Hellbender Press story, herons began to recover.

    But it took a while. The curious thing with great blue herons, which perhaps attests to the tenacity of nature itself, is that for years they really had little presence in the Tennessee Valley, even after the principal dams and reservoirs were completed. There were plenty of shallow waters for fish eaters.

  • (News alert: Katy did it!) Seventeen-year cicadas were just an opening act. Now the woods are rolling with the rhythm of our annual insects.
    in News

    Bales Common true katydidA true katydid is shown here. It’s one of the main insects that provides a permanent soundtrack to your summer life in the Knoxville area.  Stephen Lyn Bales/Hellbender Press

    What’s that buzz? We thought Brood X was over.

    In case you haven’t noticed: It’s hot!

    The “dog days of summer,” are so called because the season coincides with the period of time when the brightest star Sirius, aka the Dog Star, rises and sets with the Sun: early July through August into September.

    The ancients believed that when Sirius and the Sun were in the sky together, the days were hotter. I think they got it right.

    August has never been that thrilling to me, more of a month to endure. The birds have finished raising their families and are going through their late-season molt. Some of the migratory birds have already started to move south. But that doesn’t mean that our backyards are totally silent because late summer is cacophonous with insects.

    During the day, the trees are filled with large, green cicadas that generally spend three years underground in their larval stage, but they are not all in sync like Brood X was, so each summer we have plenty that mature to collect en masse in our neighborhoods.

    To attract females, the male cicadas do the chainsaw buzzing, but the songs are not made with vocal chords but rather special organs on the sides of their abdomens called “tymbals.” In effect, their sides vibrate loudly.

    Locally in the Knoxville region we have five species of these annual cicadas. Early in the morning and into the afternoon, swamp cicadas (Neotibicen tibicen) are calling. They are also known as morning cicadas because they usually crank up by 10 a.m. with a long uninterrupted rattle that builds in intensity.

  • It’s time we start wearing our hearts on our sleeves!

    In the spirit of Thinking Globally, Acting Locally, consider what you can do to help Mother Earth and its inhabitants.

    Adopting a more sustainable life style to reduce one’s personal ecological footprint is easier to wish for than to accomplish. Some measures that would reap a significant  environmental benefit, such as making a home more energy efficient, may require a substantial investment of physical effort, time and money that will pay back over time only.

    Deliberate choice of clothing, however, is a simple course of action for anyone to start making a big difference in social justice, climate impacts and environmental conservation.