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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

BirdNote®: Snowy Egrets - Killer Hats

Air Date: Week of

Snowy egret plumage was once prized as materials for fancy hats. (Photo: Pamala Wilson)

The Victorian era proved deadly for millions of birds, killed so that the plumage of snowy egrets and other showy birds could decorate fashionable ladies’ hats in Europe and North America. As BirdNote®’s Michael Stein explains, in 1910 outraged citizens finally rallied to save these birds on the doorstep of extinction.


Snowy Egrets – Killer Hats

[Call of the Snowy Egret, with background of Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia]

The beauty of the small, slender Snowy Egret is in its fine white feathers and long, lacy plumes. You’ll find them wading in open waters and wetlands throughout much of the United States. But once, Snowy Egrets were rare.

During the late 1800s, five million birds a year including Snowy Egrets were killed so their feathers — and sometimes even the whole birds — could be added to the hats of fashionable ladies in Europe and America. In 1886, Snowy Egret plumes were worth twice as much as gold.

[Ambient urban city, 1880s] 

In the 1800s, millions of snowy egrets and other birds were killed every year for the sake of fashion. (Photo: Steve Corey)

In a few hours during a walk through the streets of New York City, ornithologist Frank Chapman counted forty species of birds on the hats of the women he passed, including warblers, waxwings, Blue Jays, Bobwhites, and of course, Snowy Egrets.

The plundering for plumes continued until around 1910, when outraged citizens forced the passage of laws that reduced the slaughter. These are largely the same laws that protect many birds today.

“Killer hats” are now a thing of the past, and we can all appreciate the Snowy Egret in its natural habitat today. 

[Call of the Snowy Egret but heavy on swamp ambient]

Written by Chris Peterson
Producer: John Kessler
Managing Producer: Jason Saul
Editor: Ashley Ahearn
Associate Producer: Ellen Blackstone
Assistant Producer: Mark Bramhill
Narrator: Michael Stein
Nature sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Snowy Egrets [59443-2] recorded by W.W.H. Gunn; Swamp by T. Wiewandt.
© 2019 BirdNote   September 2019

CURWOOD: For pictures of the snowy egret, check out our website, LOE.org.



This story on the BirdNote website

Audubon: About Snowy Egrets

Smithsonian: How Two Women Ended the Deadly Feather Trade

All About Birds: Snowy Egret


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