Monday, August 31, 2009

Egrets and Conservation History


If you're walking along a river or wetland in southern Idaho this fall, you may notice a very large, white bird stalking along the bank: a great egret.

I saw two yesterday along the Boise River. They are never a common sight in Idaho, but you can often find one or two in wetland areas.

Egrets may not be regularly spotted in Idaho, but in many areas--from the Atlantic coast to the large wetlands of South America--egrets live in huge flocks. In many areas, they're expanding their range.

But the egret plays an important role in conservation history--mainly because in the late 1800's, many people believed that egret species would go extinct.

Egrets at that time were hunted relentlessly for their feathers. Bird feathers, at that time, represented the height of fashion. Stylish ladies wore hats made of egret plumes and other bird feathers; some even wore whole birds on their heads. Frank Chapman, ornithologist for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, once took a stroll in Manhatten during which he noted 40 species of birds--all on hats.

Efforts to stop the feather trade were met with hostility and even violence--Guy Bradley, one of the first game wardens in Florida, was murdered by plume hunters who were killing egrets.

But the loss of egrets was one of the first events to mobilize the United States conservation movement. George Bird Grinnell, a conservationist more people should know, organized the National Audubon Society to protect bird populations.

Citizen groups around the country began speaking out about the feather trade.

This led to President Theodore Roosevelt establishing Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge--the first such refuge in the country--to protect egret populations in Florida.

Conservation history is full of stories about things that have gotten better. We have more egrets today than we did 100 years ago. We need to tell these stories more.

We don't have to lose tigers or rhinos or other wildlife, even if their futures seem grim. We just need people who care enough to do something, as they did in the early 1900's to protect the egrets.--Matt Miller

1 comment:

Robert Mortensen said...

The Great Egret is one of the birds that I never get tired of seeing. They move, fly, and hunt with such grace. The brilliance of their white feathers is captivating. I always wonder how they stay so white. I get so dirty just taking a bird walk on a greenbelt.