|Snowy Egret in Breeding Plumage at Hagerman NWR, by Jack Chiles|
When you visit a National Wildlife Refuge today, you may not know that the impetus for the creation of what has become our present day refuge system came from the world of women’s fashions.
Investigating “Feather Wars” on the web, we found this from the Smithsonian Institute:
At the turn of the last century, stylish women wore hats with the latest feather-topped design from Paris, New York, and other centers of fashion. Millinery houses in Europe and America traded internationally and indiscriminately for birds and bird feathers. The more exotic or unique the hat design and feather display, the larger the sales.
By the 1890s, women were wearing whole bodies of birds on hats and clothing. In 1886, noted ornithologist Frank Chapman counted 40 varieties of native birds, or bird parts, decorating three-fourths of the 700 ladies' hats that he had observed in New York City.
Tens of millions of birds, particularly white egrets or herons and small terns, were taken at the height of the feather trade years, from 1870 – 1920. One auction record alone listed more than one million bird skins sold in London, from 1897 – 1911.
Especially hit by the feather trade was the Florida Everglades, where hunters sought the largest rookeries, killing adult birds and leaving the young to fend for themselves.
According to the Palm Beach County Historical Society,
Plume hunting was an activity almost anyone could do if they owned a gun. The beautiful down plumage of a Snowy Egret hen nursing her chicks was highly prized and brought the same price-per-ounce as gold. Without alternative means of commerce of almost any kind, plume hunting became a lucrative activity for men, women, and children in both pioneer and Seminole communities, providing cash for everyday necessities.
As the fashion industry expanded its use of feathers, the scale of this cottage industry became monstrous, and spread globally. The impact in Palm Beach County on individuals, families, and the natural environment was not reversible. For approximately fifty years, the birds were pursued to near extinction, and the phenomenon inspired some of the earliest and most critical legislation in the area of environmental protection.
Reports of these atrocities led to formation of the first Audubon and conservation societies, whose founders believed they now had enough evidence to change public opinion about hunting regulations. The social and political prominence of these individuals enabled them to promote the passage of laws that began to protect America's native wildlife
In 1896 two Boston women who had founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society, campaigned to convince prominent women that it was wrong to wear feathered or other bird related millinery, holding social events for their cause and also spearheading boycotts. They also convinced women to work with their group to promote the protection of birds.
William Dutcher, chairman of the American Ornithologists Union committee on bird protection traveled to Florida and assisted Florida Audubon in persuading the legislature to pass the Audubon Model Law outlawing plume hunting in the state. Knowing that the protection of Pelican Island would require more legislation, Frank Chapman, curator of the American Museum of Natural History and his fellow advocate, Dutcher went to President Theodore Roosevelt at his home in New York. The two appealed their case to Roosevelt’s conservative ethics. In 1903, President Roosevelt signed an executive order that established Pelican Island as the first federal bird reservation. This was the first time that the federal government put land aside for the sake of wildlife.
The US Fish & Wildlife Service history site notes that
Theodore Roosevelt set aside over 234 million acres of the country as national forests, national parks, and wildlife refuges. Most of the “Feather War” battles were conducted at the legislative level of government. Conservationists pushed legislatures to enact laws that would protect birds and thus end the feather trade. In 1911 New York passed the Audubon Plumage Bill which banned the sale of native bird plumes and closed domestic trade of feathers, in 1913 the Underwood Tariff Bill banned the import of wild bird plumes from other countries into the United States, and in 1916 the Migratory Bird Act ensured the protection of migratory birds through an agreement between the United States, Great Britain, and Canada.