Prized feathers are a blessing and a curse

Feathers make a bird.  Indeed, without feathers, a bird could not fly and would be exposed to the vagaries of weather, both hot and cold.

Thankfully, bird hats fell out of fashion by the early 20th century. (photo courtesy of National Audobon Society)

But feathers can also get a bird in trouble.  Especially when they are prized by humans.  The ancient Hawaiians killed birds by the hundreds to make feathered capes for their island royalty.

During the 1890s, a single egret plume was worth twice its weight in gold.  The millinery trade created a demand for feathers to decorate stylish hats and according to some estimates, about 200 million birds a year were killed for their feathers.

Fortunately, this practice was outlawed and groups like the new Audubon Society helped make it unpopular to wear bird parts on one’s head.

Until the practice was finally halted, killing birds for their plumes not only resulted in bird deaths, but some human game wardens were also shot and killed by feather hunters. 

Today, the great egret is still admired for its beautiful plumes, but thankfully there is little risk of its winding up part of a hat.

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