How the Snowy Egret was Saved
Years before federal legislation, a small band of thoughtful, committed citizens banded together to save one of America's most beautiful birds.
Dan Johnson
August 19, 2022

Speaking of early American bird conservationists, the Norfolk Virginian observed that while they “may labor to save the birds,” they would ultimately “labor in vain and will so long as fashion says to womankind wear wings, and mirrors tell the fact, fatal to birds, that feathers are becoming.” First popularized by British and European high society, by the early 1900s American women were adorning their hats with the feathers, wings, and even entire bird bodies of America’s migratory birds.

The snowy egret was in particular danger as plume hunters searched the countryside for the most beautiful and extravagant feathers to sell to the millineries. The egret’s brilliant white feathers and filmy curving plumes almost appeared to levitate on top of the woman’s hat when worn. Egret feathers, particularly if gathered during the mating season, could fetch up to $32 per ounce, over twice the worth of gold. Auctions in London were estimated to have resulted in the deaths of nearly 200,000 egrets in 1906 alone.

Early Federal Efforts

Possibly partly due to the efforts of early 1890s women’s societies for the protection of birds, like the Massachusetts Audubon Society, in 1900 congress passed the Lacey Act. The Lacey Act prevented the trafficking of wildlife, including migratory birds, that had been hunted in violation of state law. However, it was rarely enforced. In one famous incident, one of the nation’s first game wardens, Guy M. Bradley, was shot and killed by suspected plume poachers. His killer’s trial caused national outrage when his shooter was acquitted for insufficient evidence. According to Stuart B. McIver, author of Death in the Everglades,  Audubon society members and peace officers attempting to enforce the poaching laws were often shot and killed, and the perpetrators were rarely prosecuted.

This rampant hunting and little enforcement led to the decline and outright extinction of numerous American migratory birds, including the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet. Estimates vary, but experts generally agree that by the early 1900s, the Snowy Egret had been hunted to near extinction. That is, until one man, raised in the Louisiana bayou to respect the birds, stepped up to save the egret: Ned McIlhenny. 

“Bird City”

Edward “Ned” McIlhenny was an avid explorer, businessman, and son of Tabasco pepper sauce tycoon Edmund McIlhenny. Born in 1872 on Avery Island, Louisiana, Ned led the Mcilhenny Co. from 1898 through 1949, developing everything from the screw top for the famous sauce to global marketing techniques like radio advertising and a new Tabasco brand logo. When Ned’s father Edmund died, he thought his company’s pepper sauce deserved so little mention that he didn’t include it in his autobiographical sketch. By the time Ned had finished running McIlhenny Co., Tabasco sauce was perhaps the best known hot sauce in the world. 

Ned was also one of America’s first conservationists. He started as an ornithologist on Frederick Cook’s ill-fated 1894 Arctic expedition and later funded his own expedition to the Arctic. After returning from the first expedition however, he was incredibly disturbed by the almost complete disappearance of snowy egrets on his home island, Avery Island in Louisiana. 

For the next several weeks, he searched up and down the island for any healthy snowy egrets and managed to turn up 8 baby egrets in two nests. According to Karl Zinsmeister in The Almanac of American Philanthropy, Ned then carefully transferred the egrets to his estate, paid for their care over a period of years, and asked other major philanthropists, including John Rockefeller and Olivia Sage, to join him in creating a safe haven for the birds. 

The philanthropists together founded one of the nation’s first wildlife refuges, Bird City (now called the Jungle Gardens for its variety of flora and fauna in addition to the bird sanctuary) . At Bird City, snowy egrets were rescued, turned loose in a “flying cage” aviary, and then allowed to migrate south for the winter, with a bet that they would come back to the reserve in the summer. 

Come back they did. Theodore Roosevelt, father of American conservationism, wrote about Bird City when he visited in 1916:

“A great, shallow, artificial lake, surrounded by dwellings, fields, lawns, a railroad, and ox-wagon road, does not seem an ideal home for herons; but it has proved such under the care of Mr. McIlhenny….Complete freedom from molestation has rendered the birds extraordinarily tame. The beautiful snow-white lesser egret, which had been almost exterminated by the plume-hunters, flourishes by the thousand; the greater egret has been bothered so by the smaller one that it has retired before it; its heronries are now to be found mainly in other parts of the protected region.”

Starting with Ned’s first few egrets, Bird City grew until, by 1911, the refuge was the summer nesting ground for over 100,000 egrets.

The Snowy Egret Today

Bird City, known as Jungle Gardens today, is a 170-acre bird paradise. Bird watchers travel from across the country to see dozens of species of birds on the property, including snowy egrets, white ibises, inhingas, and ivory-billed woodpeckers. The snowy egret has significantly branched out from its refuge as well. According to the Audubon Field Guide, you can find snowy egrets from the coasts of North Carolina to the beaches of California, and it is more widespread and common than ever before. With a population of over 145,000, the Snowy Egret claims the “least concern” status on the Red List of Endangered Species.

After Ned and his band of philanthropists’ efforts, more strictly enforced federal legislation followed. In 1918, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibited the killing, capturing, or selling of any protected migratory bird species without prior authorization from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By the end of the decade, most milliners had moved away from making hats with bird parts, and the movement to protect migratory birds reigned victorious.

But let’s not forget that, years before effective federal action, Ned and a few thoughtful committed citizens banded together to save one of America’s most beautiful birds from extinction. Laboring to save the birds, instead of asking the government to do it, was far more effective than the Virginian ever would have thought.

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