Clellie Lynch: A long, white fashion victim no more

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"I can't think of anything I should like so much as to find that heron's nest," the handsome stranger was saying. "I would give ten dollars to anybody who could show it to me."

Sarah Orne Jewett,

The White Heron, 1886

EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — As the night fades and the sun slowly rises over the horizon, the landscape takes shape and color as though it were in a photo-developing machine. Trees are turning, leaves are falling and streams of migratory birds are passing through. Mornings are cool now, though by afternoon the day is quite warm. Great swaths of the countryside are red and gold. The woods reek of drying leaves. Fall has arrived.

Turkeys of all sizes congregate as they cluck and gobble their way across the leaf-strewn lawn ignoring the flock of robins busily probing for grubs. Flickers shriek as they move from tree to tree flashing that white patch and those golden underwings. The phoebe calls from the roof of the barn, while chickadees and goldfinches land on the fading flowers along the patio looking for the feeders. Soon, I tell them, soon.

Danny gets an e-mail that says a large, white heron is at one of the the beaver ponds at nearby Hand Hollow. We quickly drive to the far entrance and hop out of the car. There it is, a great egret in all its elegance and glory! A first for us locally!

The bird stands stock still on a bleached, fallen tree trunk that rests in the water underneath the heronry where two pair of great blues successfully nested this summer. Parents and adolescents have gone their separate ways.

The pond is at mid-height (as opposed to our pond which is low, low, low) surrounded by tall grasses and weeds. We find song sparrows, a nashville warbler, a blackburnian warbler, a yellowthroat, more phoebes and a performing pair of kingfishers. A sharp-eyed merlin perches high above in a dead tree watching the action below. Near the beaver dam, we flush a green heron. We spend more time watching the egret as he totally ignores all but the immediate vicinity by his feet peering into the water ready to pierce a fish or frog as it comes into view. What a spectacular bird!

The great egret, Ardea alba, is nearly as tall (three plus feet tall, wingspan of five feet or so) as its cousin, the more common great blue. It is easily identified by its beautiful white plumage, its long, narrow yellow bill and dark legs. The similar snowy egret, also pure white, has a dark bill and prominent yellow feet, but is much smaller.

If you read the literature, you'll find that the great egret has been called many different names both in the vernacular and in scientific classification. Great white heron, great white egret, white crane, American egret, and more colloquially: angel bird, the big plume bird or the long white. In the nomenclature: Ardea egretta, Casmerodius egretta, Casmerodius alba egretta, Egretta alba. The most recent field guides are consistent: the great egret, Ardea alba.

In Ralph Hoffmann's "A Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York" (1904), there is no entry for egrets. The only long-legged marsh birds listed are: great blue, green and black-crowned night-herons and the two bitterns.

Greed and vanity

Note the name "big plume bird." This avian does produce beautiful, long white plumes during the breeding season which nearly caused its extinction in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Man's greed and women's vanity combined to encourage constant mass collection of feathers for hats. Since the nuptial plumage develops in breeding season, the birds were shot then and often the feathermongers left the eggs to rot and the chicks to starve.

The price paid for feathers was $32 an ounce. Four birds were needed per ounce. At one auction in London, 1,608 30-ounce packages were sold. Do the math: that's 192,000 birds killed for this one auction. Many milliners claimed that the feathers were collected from the ground in the nesting colonies. Really!

Ornithologists calculated that 200 million birds (!) were collected annually throughout the world for ornamentation. By 1910, many different groups banded together to halt this mass slaughter. Feminists sought changes in fashion. Ornithologists lobbied the government to pass laws forbidding killing egrets or any migratory birds. The fledgling Audubon Society, noting that many of the heronries had disappeared, posted armed wardens in and around the remaining refuges to protect the large colonies down south.

Eventually, fashion did change and the constant collection of egrets slowed. The great egret became the symbol for the National Audubon Society. Slowly the huge heronries became alive again with great whites and not only did the adolescents wander into the north, many came back in the spring to our marshy and meadowy areas and bred.

First in the coastal Carolinas, then in New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and even Maine. Ludlow Griscom in "Birds of Massachusetts" (1955) mentions that before the hat craze, great whites were probably uncommon visitors, hence Sarah Orne Jewett's short story, "A White Heron," in which a young girl debates helping the "handsome stranger" locate the rare white heron. This story is one of the first that discusses saving the environment rather than exploiting it.

The first breeding pair in Massachusetts was recorded in 1954; in New York, in 1953. Imagine these great egrets, described as large and elegant as well as shy and vigilant, were nearly put out of existence, all for the want of a beautiful hat!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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