Our Window on Nature

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Bird City

Filed under: Birds — Lowell Christie -- June 15, 2006 @ 3:39 pm

Sometimes one man can make a difference. Although today governments provide sanctuary for endangered birds, plants and mammals, there have been times when a single person played an essential role in saving an entire species.

As we roam the United States we carry with us a small library of books written by other travelers; men and women who searched out the hidden corners of nature’s world. And in one of these books, a number of years ago, we read about one man’s monument to a bird that had been hunted almost to extinction. Then, when we began traveling extensively in our motor coach, we headed for Louisiana to see for ourselves this place called Bird City.

In 1892 Edward Avery McIlhenny took the first steps in carrying out a dream. His goal was to save that lovely white member of the heron family, the snowy egret. Once common in this country, by the end of the 19th century the snowies had been practically exterminated. For years plume hunters swarmed into the breeding grounds and slaughtered egrets. They had no use for the meat, but collected only a few plumes from the neck of each bird to be used by milliners in decorating women’s hats. The pressure on the egrets was enormous. Since herons are colonial nesters, the hunters simply descended on the rookeries, shot the plumed adults, and left the eggs or nestlings to perish.

Clearly something had to be done to save the rapidly diminishing numbers of snowies, and Edward McIlhenny had both the plan and the necessary land to attempt it.

McIlhenny’s plan originated with the story of a rajah who built a flying cage on his Indian estate. Exotic birds were introduced into this enclosure where they lived, mated, and died. But the cage was maintained only during the rajah’s lifetime, and after his death it fell into disrepair. The birds were then free to leave through gaps between the bamboo slats, but they remained. To them the cage was home.

The McIlhenny family owned property in coastal Louisiana in an area where a few snowy egrets still nested. Edward McIlhenny built his version of the rajah’s flying cage out of wire and placed it over a part of an artificial lake on Avery Island. Venturing into the nearby swamps, the naturalist caught a number of young snowy egrets and released them in their new home.

McIlhenny hand-fed the youngsters, keeping them caged until they reached maturity. Soon the egrets engaged in elaborate mating displays, building nests and raising young. During the next migratory season, McIlhenny destroyed the cage and watched to see what would happen. The snowy egrets left – flying to South America along the same migration route their ancestors had used for centuries.

The following spring was an anxious time at the McIlhenny estate, but the result was worth the worry. The hand-reared egrets not only returned to their adopted home, but they also brought along their offspring who, as adults, were ready to start their own families. In a few weeks the buttonwood bushes that surrounded the lake on Avery Island held snowy egret nests. This second nesting season was also successful, so that the following year the birds returned in even greater number.

Before many springs passed, the trees and shrubs around the lake proved inadequate for the masses of returning birds. McIlhenny had his employees build bamboo platforms out over the lake to give the birds additional nesting space, and then he provided wagon loads of freshly cut twigs for nesting material.

By 1905 more than 1,000 pairs of snowy egrets returned to nest – making it a virtual “Bird City.” Only three years later there were more than 10,000 birds. With this population explosion McIlhenny had to enlarge his sanctuary, build more dams to expand the size of the lake, and cart in still more nesting material. But his greatest reward wasn’t the ballooning egret population on his own estate, but the outlawing of the plume trade. Only then could the snowy egrets begin to reclaim the breeding territory that had been taken from them by force.

Bird City still exists today, as a part of the Jungle Gardens of Avery Island. The number of birds isn’t as great as it was when it peaked in 1912 with in excess of 100,000 birds, although workmen still deliver as many as 30 truckloads of twigs to the water’s edge each season. But now these once-endangered birds live and breed across much of the southern United States. Other egrets share their habitat, but it’s easy to tell them apart. Only the snowy egret has brilliant yellow feet – making them the birds with the “Golden Slippers.”

All this was made possible because one man had a dream.


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