John James Audubon, the pre-eminent 19th-century painter of birds, considered the snowy egret to be one of America’s surpassingly beautiful species. The egret, he noted, was also abundant. “I have visited some of their breeding grounds,” Audubon wrote, “where several hundred pairs were to be seen, and several nests were placed on the branches of the same bush, so low at times that I could easily see into them.”
Audubon insisted that birds were so plentiful in North America that no depredation—whether hunting, the encroachment of cities and farmlands, or any other act of man—could extinguish a species. Yet little more than half a century after Audubon’s death in 1851, the last passenger pigeon—a species once numbering in the billions—was living out its days in the Cincinnati Zoo, to be replaced shortly thereafter by a final handful of Carolina parakeets, also soon to die in captivity.
The snowy egret—and its slightly larger cousin, the great egret—were similarly imperiled by the late 1800s, when fashionable women began wearing hats adorned with feathers, wings and even entire taxidermied birds. The egrets’ brilliant white plumage, especially the gossamer wisps of feather that became more prominent during mating season, was in high demand among milliners. (A snowy egret specimen from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s ornithology collections, above, documents the bird’s showy splendor.)
The plume trade was a sordid business. Hunters killed and skinned the mature birds, leaving orphaned hatchlings to starve or be eaten by crows. “It was a common thing for a rookery of several hundred birds to be attacked by the plume hunters, and in two or three days utterly destroyed,” wrote William Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Society and formerly chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian.
The main drivers of the plume trade were millinery centers in New York and London. Hornaday, who described London as “the Mecca of the feather killers of the world,” calculated that in a single nine-month period the London market had consumed feathers from nearly 130,000 egrets. And egrets were not the only species under threat. In 1886, it was estimated, 50 North American species were being slaughtered for their feathers.
Egrets and other wading birds were being decimated until two crusading Boston socialites, Harriet Hemenway and her cousin, Minna Hall, set off a revolt. Their boycott of the trade would culminate in formation of the National Audubon Society and passage of the Weeks-McLean Law, also known as the Migratory Bird Act, by Congress on March 4, 1913. The law, a landmark in American conservation history, outlawed market hunting and forbade interstate transport of birds.
Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and her husband Augustus, a philanthropist who was heir to a shipping fortune, lived in a tony section of Back Bay. Hemenway, a Boston Brahmin but also something of an iconoclast (she once invited Booker T. Washington as a houseguest when Boston hotels refused him), would live to 102. A passionate amateur naturalist, she was known for setting out on birding expeditions wearing unthinkably unfashionable white sneakers.
In 1896, after Hemenway read an article describing the plume trade, she enlisted the help of Hall. The cousins consulted the Blue Book, Boston’s social register, and launched a series of tea parties at which they urged their friends to stop wearing feathered hats. “We sent out circulars,” Hall later recalled, “asking the women to join a society for the protection of birds, especially the egret. Some women joined and some who preferred to wear feathers would not join.”
Buoyed by their success—some 900 women joined this upper-crust boycott—Hemenway and Hall that same year organized the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Audubon societies formed in more than a dozen states; their federation would eventually be called the National Audubon Society.
In 1900, Congress passed the Lacey Act, which prohibited transport across state lines of birds taken in violation of state laws. But the law, poorly enforced, did little to slow the commerce in feathers. Getting in the way of the plume trade could be dangerous. In 1905, in an incident that generated national outrage, a warden in south Florida, Guy M. Bradley, was shot and killed while attempting to arrest a plume hunter—who was subsequently acquitted by a sympathetic jury.
The watershed moment arrived in 1913, when the Weeks-McLean Law, sponsored by Massachusetts Representative John Weeks and Connecticut Senator George McLean, effectively ended the plume trade.
In 1920, after a series of inconclusive court challenges to Weeks-McLean, the Supreme Court upheld a subsequent piece of legislation, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the majority, declared that the protection of birds was in the “national interest.” Without such measures, he declared, one could foresee a day when no birds would survive for any power—state or federal—to regulate.