Unlikely Headfellows: Reflecting on Millinery History and Migratory Bird Conservation

By Malory Henderson

Author: Fairley/Friday, May 18, 2018/Categories: Blog, Conservation, Education, Wildlife Watching

Unlikely Headfellows: Reflecting on Millinery History and Migratory Bird Conservation

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act set the international standard for the protection of bird species that we still follow today, but many don’t know the story behind how it came to be and what came before…

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, birds were under intense threat from hunting, and much of the world still considered nature to be an inexhaustible resource. In addition to being hunted for sport, bird feathers were widely used to create elaborate hats for affluent women and were also sometimes used for taxidermy as whole animals to decorate homes. These hats were so popular, and the feather market was so powerful that it led to extinction or near-extinction events for multiple species, with entire colonies of birds frequently being completely wiped out by hunters. In the 1800s and early 1900s, several species of birds in the U.S. became extinct due to unrestricted hunting practices. These species include the Heath Hen, Great Auk, Labrador Duck, Carolina Parakeet and the Passenger Pigeon, which was once the most abundant bird in North America.

During this time, ornithologists and field guides wrote descriptions of the massacres of bird colonies and the aftermath of rotting corpses and starving chicks. Articles began to emerge juxtaposing these horrific scenes of violence with the elaborate egret-feathered hats and jewel-encrusted hummingbirds that were all the rage in the fashion industry. These descriptions eventually made their way to women who found them to be completely horrifying. Scandalized by the dark truth behind this feathery fashion trend, women began to think twice about the true costs of being fashionable. One woman, Harriet Hemenway, took it upon herself to stop the carnage. Along with the help of her cousin, Minna Hall, Hemenway rallied together female socialites in Boston, which eventually numbered around 900 activists. Hemenway and Hall joined ornithologist William Brewster in 1896 to launch the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Part of the official mission of this organization was to raise awareness of the practices of the feather trade and slaughter of millions of birds.

News of the feather boycott spread quickly. Despite feather traders and opposing politicians labeling Audubon Society members as "extremists," the boycott eventually helped pass a state law prohibiting wild bird feather trading in Massachusetts, signed in 1897. Following this victory, Audubon and the women activists pushed even harder for the first federal conservation legislation in the U.S. They succeeded when, in 1900, the Lacey Act was signed into law. The Lacey Act prohibited transportation of illegally captured or prohibited animals across state lines, and limited the sale, transport, and importation of non-native animal and plant species. The Act listed the primary threats to bird populations as excessive hunting, the millinery industry and the introduction of harmful exotic species.

This battle over the commercial feather trade was one of the first times a popular, grassroots movement coalesced in defense of the environment and succeed in implementing legislation to protect native birds. Continuing this trend of conservation action, U.S. Senators John Weeks and George McLean took up the cause. The Weeks-McLean Act prohibited spring hunting of native bird species and marketing of migratory birds and the importation of wild bird feathers, effectively ending the powerful millinery industry. This law empowered the Secretary of Agriculture to set nationwide hunting seasons – the first law ever passed in the U.S. regulating the shooting of migratory birds. The Weeks-McLean Act became effective in 1913, although we rarely hear about it. Despite the importance of this act, due to a constitutional weakness it was later replaced by the much stronger Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) in 1918.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act "makes it illegal for anyone to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to federal regulation" (USFWS). Signed into law in 1918, the MBTA effectively ended the wanton killing of birds for sport and fashion. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has statutory authority and responsibility for enforcing the MBTA. The act also implements conventions for migratory bird protection between the U.S. and four other countries: Canada, Mexico, Japan and Russia.

The MBTA set the international standard for the protection of bird species that we still follow today. This act was one of the National Audubon Society's first major victories in the fight for bird conservation. Since the MBTA was implemented, is has save millions, if not billions, of birds. One of the most visible successes was the recovery of the Snowy Egret, which was hunted to the brink of extinction for its feathers before these early conservationists intervened. The act is also credited with saving many other species from extinction, such as the Wood Duck and Sandhill Crane. Today, the act continues to protect almost all native bird species in the U.S., with protections covering more than 1,000 species.

The success of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and its predecessors highlights the power of a small, dedicated group (or person) to change the path of nationwide wildlife conservation. The MBTA brought attention to the plight of migratory birds at the hands of humans and unregulated hunting practices. Hunting of bird species is tightly regulated, and populations are closely monitored, so hunting is no longer a threat to bird populations. Today, the greatest dangers posed are other consequences of human activity such as deaths caused by buildings, cats, pollution, pesticides, habitat loss, power lines and other infrastructure.

The multitude of threats facing birds today may seem overwhelming, but there are as many opportunities to make a difference as there are personalities and interests. You can be an advocate in your community, or to your local, state or federal government representatives for wildlife conservation. You can increase bird habitat by planting native plants in your yard and encouraging others to do the same. You can also sign up for Audubon programs like Climate Watch or a local Christmas Bird Count. You can log any bird sightings on eBird and monitor nests on NestWatch. These programs provide information needed to track bird populations and help prioritize precious conservation dollars. Even casual engagement in citizen science projects through iNaturalist can help with conservation efforts. These are just a few examples of the ways you can contribute to bird conservation. Check out these sources for more ideas:

National Audubon Society

Audubon North Carolina

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

”Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
— Margaret Mead

References and Additional Information:

Hats Off to Women Who Saved the Birds

The Women Who Removed Birds from People’s Hats

How Two Women Ended the Deadly Feather Trade

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act Explained

Five Things to Know About the Recently Changed Migratory Bird Act

The History and Evolution of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Loss, S., Will, T., & Marra, P. 2012. Direct human-caused mortality of birds: improving quantification of magnitude and assessment of population impact. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 10(7). 357-364.



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