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Feather hats

"I say Miss Bradley," said Helen Flight, "were you aware that the feathers on your hat are the breeding plumes of the snowy egret?"

"Why, no, I wasn't," answered Miss Bradley, who seemed relieved that the conversation had come back to the subject of her hat. "How fascinating!"

"Quite," Helen answered. "Rather a nasty business, actually, which I had occasion to witness last spring while I was in the Florida swamps studying the wading birds of the Everglades for my Birds of America portfolio.

"As you correctly stated, the feather-festooned hat such as the one you wear is very much the vogue in New York fashion these days. The hat makers there have commissioned the Seminole Indians who inhabit the Everglades to supply them feathers for the trade. Unfortunately the adult birds grow the handsome plumage that adorns your chapeau only during the nesting season.

"The Indians have devised an ingenious method of netting the birds while they are on their nests – which they are reluctant to leave due to their instinct to protect their young. Of course, the Indians must kill the adult birds in order to pluck the few nuptial plumes. Entire rookeries are thus destroyed, the young orphaned birds left to starve in the nest."

Miss Flight gave a small shudder. "Pity…a terribly disagreeable sound, that of a rookery full of nestlings crying for their parents," she said. "You can hear it across the swamp for miles… "

Poor Miss Bradley went quite ashen at this explanation, touching her new hat with trembling fingers.

-- from One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

The role of birds in fashion – particularly involving hats – can be traced back hundreds of years. Plumes have long been considered a status symbol and sign of wealth among western cultures.

Native Americans also wore feathers as a status symbol of the most powerful and influential among the tribe. The magnificent headdresses were first used by the Sioux people, and were created from eagle, hawk, and owl feathers. This use of feathers did not undermine bird populations.

Native Americans with bird feather headdresses

Native Americans with bird feather headdresses
(Courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/NGPC)

In European and American cities, feather fashions took off and bird populations did suffer the consequences. Plumes were at their highest demand throughout the 20th century. Rich individuals paid a small fortune for exotic feathered head coverings. At one point, hats were even adorned with whole stuffed birds. The effect of this unfortunate trend on bird populations was dramatic.

One hat maker in London recorded a single shipment of 32,000 dead hummingbirds; 80,000 aquatic birds; and 800,000 pairs of wings.

At the beginning of the 21st century, more enlightened views began to emerge, and protests were launched. The Audubon Society in America and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Britain both campaigned for bans on endangered bird feathers.

Eventually, only farmed feathers could be used, and the feathers could only come from specific birds.

Today, birds are still a source of "feather fashion." The demand, however, is met from the feathers of domesticated birds such as chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys.


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