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How the Great White Egret Spurred Bird Conservation

I was certain that the bird's plumage had to have been faked, but all the photographer did was darken the background. Those feathers were real

Great White Egret, by Antonio Soto, photographed March 2009, South Florida

When I first saw this striking photo, the winner of the Reader’s Choice award in Smithsonian magazine’s 8th Annual Photo Contest, I was certain that the bird’s plumage had to have been faked; after all, the photo was in the Altered Images category. But all that the photographer, Antonio Soto, had done to his image was darken the background. Those feathers were real.

I’m not the only one who has been dazzled by the egret’s feathers, though. At the turn of the 20th century, these feathers were a huge hit in the fashion world, to the detriment of the species, as Thor Hanson explains in his new book Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle:

One particular group of birds suffered near extermination at the hands of feather hunters, and their plight helped awaken a conservation ethic that still resonates in the modern environmental movement. With striking white plumes and crowded, conspicuous nesting colonies, Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets faced an unfortunate double jeopardy: their feathers fetched a high price, and their breeding habits made them an easy mark. To make matters worse, both sexes bore the fancy plumage, so hunters didn’t just target the males; they decimated entire rookeries. At the peak of the trade, an ounce of egret plume fetched the modern equivalent of two thousand dollars, and successful hunters could net a cool hundred grand in a single season. But every ounce of breeding plumes represented six dead adults, and each slain pair left behind three to five starving nestlings. Millions of birds died, and by the turn of the century this once common species survived only in the deep Everglades and other remote wetlands.

This slaughter inspired Audubon members to campaign for environmental protections and bird preservation, at the state, national and international levels.

The Lacey Act passed Congress in 1900, restricting interstate transport of wild fowl and game. In 1911 New York State outlawed the sale of all native birds and their feathers, and other states soon followed suit. Passage of the Weeks-McLean Act (1913) and the Migratory Bird Act (1918) took the protections nationwide and mirrored legislation in Canada, Britain, and Europe, effectively ending the fancy-feather era.

The egret population has recovered in the last century and is now thriving in North America, even in some wetlands near urban and suburban areas.

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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