Monday, October 15, 2007
Plume Hunters in Florida
The hottest fashion accessory in the late nineteenth century was a bird plume hat. Elaborate feather confections adorned women's heads, but as Stuart McIver writes:
"Behind the plumes and feathered hats lay a trail of bloody slaughter, human greed, human ingenuity, production skills, and artistry. The result was a thing of beauty that brought joy to its wearer and her admirers. The feather trade's cast of characters was a large one: in the big city, the fashion designers, millinery workers, salesmen, and retail merchants; in the swamps, marshes, and woods, the traders and plume buyers and, at the bottom of the chain, the plume hunters."
A plume is a large and particularly showy feather. The plumes of Florida's snowy egret, white ibis, and other wading birds during breeding season were particularly sought-after commodities. That so many plume birds could be found in Florida added to the state's mystique -- historian Jack E. Davis calls the birds the "beauty to the alligator's "beast," good and evil in an exotic wilderness.
Life was difficult in south Florida and the Everglades, and it was hard to turn down a chance to make a little money, a little better life for the family. Many men already hunted these birds for dinner (white ibis was also called Chokoloskee chicken, refering to a trading post in the Ten Thousand Islands). What was wrong with killing a few more?
Plume hunters didn't restrict themselves to shooting just one or two birds. They would kill all the adults in a rookery, leaving the young on their own to die. Thousands upon thousands of birds were shot, threatening the continued existence of some species. This carnage, however, gave credence to early conservation efforts in the United States.
In 1901, at the urging of the American Ornithologists' Union, Florida passed a law protecting many species of birds. In 1902, Guy Bradley, a former plume hunter himself, was appointed warden in Monroe County. In Death in the Everglades, Stuart McIver tells Bradley's story, the story of the plume birds, the story of the south Florida frontier. Ultimately, he tells the story of Bradley's death, shot in 1905 by the father of an accused plume hunter. Bradley became a martyr for the cause.
Wildlife contributed to Florida's popular image, so important to those marketing its homes and hotels. Nonetheless, the wildlife, the natural resources, were themselves commodities -- alligator hides, sea shells, orchids, and cypress knees were marketed, along with the plumes. Notes Davis, writing about the late 1800s, "In the end, harvesting novelties of nature threatened those things that gave Florida its original splendor."
Gradually, a combination of legal controls, changing fashions, and diminishing supply lessened the demand for plumes, although the hunting continued well into the twentieth century. Today, Florida's wading birds are threatened by pollution and habitat loss rather than by the hats we wear.
Death in the Everglades: The Murder of Guy Bradley, America's First Martyr to Environmentalism, by Stuart B. McIver (University Press of Florida, 2003)
"Alligators and Plume Birds; The Despoilation of Florida's Living Aesthetic" by Jack E. Davis, in Paradise Lost? The Environmental History of Florida (University Press of Florida, 2005)