Egrets, a former gold mine for those of a different feather
by Karen Benson
Aug 17, 2010 | 1442 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A rare white-phase Reddish Egret hunts fish in the tide waters of Copano Bay.
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Which is worth more, a pound of feathers or a pound of gold? I am sure you would say gold. But in 1910, an ounce of gold and the plume feathers from a single egret (about an ounce) both sold for $32.

This sounds like really good news if you want to get rich quick! Where can we find an egret? And what, exactly, is an egret?

Egrets belong to a group of long-legged, long-necked wading birds. They have dagger-like beaks that they use for spearing fish. The group also includes the herons. Commonly, we have eight species of herons and egrets around Beeville.

Last week, my friend Kay Past and I decided to see how many of these birds we could find. To improve our chances of seeing all eight in one spot we drove to Bayside, which is just a few minutes outside of Refugio and on Copano Bay. The shallow coastal waters are great places for long-legged wading birds to feed.

At Bayside, we found six of the eight species: Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron and Reddish Egret. We also got Cattle Egrets, but I’ll save them for another story. We were pleased. We listed them on the birders’ sightings board at Crofutt’s Bakery, the local eatery that has long been a birder’s “hot spot.” We were proud of ourselves.

But then Kay asked: What is the difference between a heron and an egret? I had to admit I didn’t really know. But I looked it up. Egrets are rather loosely classed as “plume-bearing” herons. The long, soft plumes that grow out from the upper back of these birds during breeding season are called “aigrettes.” This is a French word meaning a “spray of feathers” and it is also the source of the name “egret.” It is the aigrettes that are worth their weight in gold. Or they used to be.

It all began in the 1880s when fancy hats were all the rage. What probably began with a few colorful feathers added to a lady’s hat by some unknown (but creative) milliner ultimately became a hat craze. Soon, it was not enough to just have feathers. Hats sported birds’ wings and tails, owls’ heads, whole hummingbirds and some warblers thrown in for good measure. Dried fruits, stuffed mice and even a few reptiles graced these amazing confections! And nothing topped off a hat better than the long lacy feathers from the nuptial plumage of Snowy or Great Egrets.

The feather trade was a kind of Gold Rush. A man could get rich by simply locating a rookery (a breeding colony) of egrets. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of these birds, would communally nest on an island. A dozen or so nests could be found in just one small tree! The adult egrets grew those long, lacy aigrettes to attract mates. The aigrettes formed a kind of “bridal veil” that was especially beautiful to their nesting partners.

Unfortunately for the egrets, milliners and plume hunters thought so too. Both parents would be shot and their luckless chicks would starve in the nest. The plume hunters were greedy. Why take just one or two birds when you could take the whole colony? A few years of this slaughter had the effect of nearly wiping out Snowy and Great Egrets in the southern states.

Ironically, what saved the egrets from extinction were the efforts of women themselves. The very ladies who might have worn such extravagant hats were the ones who formed “women’s clubs” and had afternoon teas to enlighten their friends. They formed pacts to refrain from wearing hats decorated with plumes and bird parts. Many states founded Audubon Societies at this time. Most of these developed directly from “women’s clubs” and the membership was mostly made up of women.

Over time the fashion trend was reversed. The ladies’ husbands, sons and brothers passed laws prohibiting the feather trade. President Teddy Roosevelt signed in to law the first national wildlife refuge: an egret rookery in Florida. The second refuge was a rookery in Texas.

The conservation movement was born. Our view of nature was permanently changed. From the protection of birds to the environmental movement to “living green” has affected us all. I think it has been a good thing.
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