The Great Egret Rebound

What the researchers, and the students, in my story about the Great Egret, Where In the World is Mrs. Palma?, are discovering about these unique birds is truly amazing. Just imagine a bird flying at more than 60 miles per hour from Beaufort to New York, without stopping! It would be challenging for a person to do that in a car. I can’t imagine a Great Egret accomplishing the feat, even with a tail wind.

The sad part of the Great Egret story is that these magnificent birds were almost hunted to extinction in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries because many market hunters thought the bird’s feathers looked good on hats, moreso than on the birds in the wild.

The fashion trends of the 1880s and 1890s favored hats adorned with real feathers and stuffed wild birds. The most popular, as you can imagine, were the long plumes of egrets and herons. Hat makers in Europe and the United States demanded large numbers of egret plumes to create their stylish hats and paid top dollar for large, undamaged feathers. That led to relentless plume hunting and by some estimates, almost 200 million wild birds per year were killed. Making matters even worse, large numbers of breeding birds were killed, which brought the decline of the species almost to the brink of extinction.

It wasn’t until the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 that Great Egrets received protection from hunters. The Act is the primary legislation protecting native birds in the United States. It is also one of the nation’s earliest environmental laws. Before the bill was approved, the hunting of non-game birds was basically unregulated.

The law prohibits the “taking” of any native birds. That term, “taking,” can mean killing a wild bird or possessing parts of a wild bird, including the feathers, nests or eggs.

Thanks to the law, the Great Egret population rebounded and the bird is an environmental success story. Great Egrets are found on both coasts of the United States and throughout the middle of the country from the Gulf Coast up to Minnesota. Great Egrets are also found throughout all of Mexico and most of South America.

That’s not to say Great Egrets don’t face challenges. Populations have not returned to what they were at the turn of the century, chiefly due to the degradation and loss of wetland habitats as well as the development of coastal areas, both of which still serves as threats.

Learning more about the Great Egret’s habitat, and how best to protect it, is one of the reasons scientists are tracking the birds.

- Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!


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