Nature Talks - pic1

A snowy egret enjoys hanging out at the beach.

Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on July 1, 1972.

SNOWY EGRETS have become more common in New Hampshire than in recent years.

The first all-time record of a snowy egret was made in 1948. On July 12, 1970, 18 were seen at Hampton. Thus, the letter we received from a gentleman in Hampton, written on the 18th of June, is not as surprising to ornithologists as it was to both him and me. He wrote:

“Snowy egret — covey of eight — would it be possible these were what I observed feeding in a salt marsh ‘lagoon’ this morning at about 6:30 as I rode south on U.S. Route 1 in Hampton, crossing the marshes? In 40 years of living hereabouts, a number of years (mid-summer into September) I have seen a pair or a lone larger white egret on these marshes. I gaped at this sight today.”

Upon receipt of our reader’s letter I contacted Tudor Richards, executive director of the Audubon Society of New Hampshire, who told me of the above records. He then went on to say that although he didn’t know of any snowy egrets, which nested in New Hampshire, there were several that are now nesting along with black-crowned night herons on Appledore Island, the largest in the Isle of Shoals. Snowy egrets have been seen flying back and forth to Hampton, from this island which is barely located in Maine.

I have seen individual snowy egrets at Hampton and also in Rye, feeding in the marshes, for the past several years but such a number as eight was a startling figure to me.

In 1925, Bent wrote of the snowy egret:

“This beautiful little heron, one of nature’s daintiest and most exquisite creatures, is the most charming of all our marsh birds. The spotless purity of its snowy plumage, adorned with airy, waving plumes, and its gentle, graceful manners, make it the center of attraction wherever it is seen. While darting about in the shallow water in pursuit of its lively prey, its light curving plumes fluttering in the breeze, it is a pretty picture of lovely animation. The full play of all its glory is seen as it approaches its nest to greet its mate or its young with all of the glorious plumes of its head, breast and back erected and spread, like a filmy fan. It seems conscious of its beauty and likes to show off its charms for the benefit of its loved ones. No wonder a lovely woman appreciates the beauty of the plumes and longs to appropriate them and add to her own charms.”

The snowy egret played a large part in the establishment of the Audubon Society. We have to go back to the time when man was the arch-enemy of the egret. The destruction wrought by plume hunters was most cruel and wasteful. The slaughter began in Audubon’s time (1840) and continued with unabated fury in all parts of the world where egrets were to be found.

Herbert K. Job (1905), writing at a time when the egrets were at about their lowest ebb, published some interesting figures to account for their disappearance. He wrote:

“When we know about the millinery plume trade, we understand the reason. In 1903 the price for plumes offered to hunters was $32 per ounce, which makes the plumes worth about twice their weight in gold. There will always be men who would break any law for such profit. No rookery of these herons can long exist, unless it be guided by force of arms day and night. Here are some official figures of the trade from one source alone, of auctions at the London Commerce Sales Rooms during 1902. There were sold 1,608 packages of ‘ospreys,’ that is, herons’ plumes. A package is said to average in weight 30 ounces. This makes a total of 48,240 ounces. As it requires about four birds to make an ounce of plumes, these sales meant 192,000 herons killed at their nests, and from two to three times that number of young or eggs destroyed. Is it, then, any wonder that these species are on the verge of extinction.”

It was this kind of destruction in the United States that caused George Bird Grinnell to found the first Audubon Society in 1886.

The Audubon Society hired wardens to patrol the egret breeding colonies in hops that they could preserve these beautiful birds for all time. Fortunately, their wardens were successful and through legislation and enforcement the slaughter by the plume hunters was brought under control.

Strange as it may seen, plumes were not the only adornments that ladies whoose to decorate their hats. According to Tudor Richards, in an article prepared especially for the New Hampshire Audubon Quarterly, Spring 1972, Dr. Frank M. Chapman, the famous ornithologist, on two late afternoon walks back in the 1880s in downtown New York City, recorded 173 women wearing hats which displayed whole bodies of 40 different species of birds. Some of the birds that were noted by Chapman included 23 cedar waxwings; 21 flickers; 15 snow buntings; 9 Baltimore orioles; five blue jays; three bluebirds; and, believe it or not, two ruffled grouse!

Can you imagine seeing a lady coming down the street in your hometown wearing a whole partridge on her hat? Unbelievable! I, for one, am pleased that times have changed.

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Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at jlord@unionleader.com.