Great Egrets gather by the hundreds on a small island in the lower Cape Fear River. They’ve returned in March as they have for decades to nest. Some carry nesting material, others build nests, several are already incubating, and even more display their elegant plumes trying to attract a mate with which they will raise their next generation. Today, they’re safe. The nesting site is protected by the National Audubon Society continuing a more than century-long tradition of protecting plumed wading birds and being the country’s leading bird conservation organization.
The stately egret has not always been afforded such protection. The authors of Birds of North Carolina (1919) wrote: “No bird in America has so melancholy a history as the Egret. Those of us living today are witnessing the passing of a race, and we doubt seriously if a single individual will be alive in the United States twenty-five years hence, unless the extraordinary protections now being taken for their protection by the National Association of Audubon Societies should prove to be successful.”
This time of year, when egrets gather at their nesting sites and they have the freshest, cleanest, most immaculate plumage was when market hunters would shoot egrets by the thousands to harvest their wispy and delicate plumes, called aigrettes. Each egret has 40-50 aigrettes and their monetary value was equal to twice their weight in gold as adornment for hats worn by fashionable women of the day.
The relentless harvest was clearly not sustainable. Finally, after populations crashed and a groundswell of opposition to the relentless killing of egrets rose up, led by the National Audubon Society, the killing was stopped by law in 1918.
It is because of the work of the National Audubon Society that I can stand here and witness one of the great wildlife spectacles of the season.