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A Gallery of Masterpieces

I was thrilled to come upon dozens of birds yesterday in one of the canals here in Big Cypress. A cluster of wood storks, snowy egrets and white ibises had gathered in a shallow section of one of the canals. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission lists the first as endangered and the latter two as "species of special concern." This encounter with such extraordinary beauty called to mind a chapter in Michael Grunwald’s definitive history, The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise.

Therein, he writes: "In February 1886, a birdwatcher named Frank Chapman conducted an experiment in Manhattan, identifying 160 bird species on two strolls through the Ladies’ Miles shopping district. This was no winter ornithological miracle. The birds were all dead, and perched atop the heads of stylish ladies. Of the 700 women’s hats spotted by Chapman, 542 were festooned with feathers, the most elegant were ‘aigrettes,’ the dainty nuptial plumes of courting wading birds. A few of the most expensive hats served as pedestals for entire birds.

"At the height of the fad, an ounce of feathers cost more than an ounce of gold, which provided an excellent incentive to brave the Everglades. Plume hunters sold spoonbill skins for $5, great white herons for $10, and flamingos for up to $25. At a time when average per capita income was less than a dollar a day, plumers gladly supplied cheaper birds as well, selling tri-color and great blue herons, reddish and snowy egrets, pelicans and owls for a dime to a half-dollar per skin . . . In 1886, the American Ornithological Union estimated the annual nationwide carnage at five million birds . . . 'There were plume and song birds of every description that the Creator had placed here to beautify and adorn Man’s Paradise, but the lawless marauders just about destroyed everything that came in reach of their powder and lead,' one critic complained.

"At the height of nesting season, plumers patiently shot out rookeries one bird at a time, leaving rotting carcasses and helpless chicks to be devoured by raccoons, crows and buzzards . . . This kill-them-all strategy took its toll. Roseate spoonbills, snowy egrets, great white herons, and short-tailed hawks nearly vanished from Florida. The wild flamingos that so enchanted Audubon—and inspired the name of the village at the tip of Cape Sable—did vanish from Florida. The lime-green-and-carmine Carolina parakeet was hunted to extinction. There was only one pair of reddish egrets left on the peninsula, and only one rookery for brown pelicans, a clump of mangroves off Vero Beach, called Pelican Island."

Eventually this wholesale slaughter inspired conservationists to rise up. Finally in 1903, the first of 535 national wildlife refuges was established at Pelican Island. President Teddy Roosevelt, in signing the law creating that first sanctuary, said: "Birds should be saved for utilitarian reasons—and moreover, they should be saved for reasons unconnected with dollars and cents. To lose the chance to see . . . pelicans winging their way homeward across the crimson afterglow of the sunset . . . is like the loss of the gallery of the masterpieces of the artists of old time."


John Barry, in recommending Grunwald’s The Swamp wrote: "[The book] combines history and investigative journalism to explore not only the Everglades but the larger tensions of a society’s relationship with the environment." A great read.

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