There's a bird, it's all white, flying towards a dead tree. It's a great egret. A couple of its group have flown into the tree before me. Graceful, in its white plumage sliding silently towards the tree, the bird looks out of place, but its relatives in the dead hickory look decorated and stately. They are the decoration, strung about the treeline like ornaments. The egret in flight glides toward the tree, picks its spot, flares its wings, and drills a tree branch. Knocked onto its back in mid-air, the bird rights itself and flies slowly in a circle around the nearby pond. I try to track the bird, see where it goes, but more egrets circle in from the west and I lose track. Most of the birds land successfully in the trees, though a few more drill branches. I count sixteen in all. Are they only looking for a place to spend the night?
As it turns out, these birds stay for about a week, perched in trees and wading in the pond along Highway 89 here at Faville Grove Sanctuary. Some stragglers still remain. The sixteen pioneers on the first day turned into hundreds of egrets a few days later. A handful of great blue herons joined the stand. Herons are a bit larger, but the egrets steal the show this week. Cars stop along Highway 89 to spectate, pausing their commute, grocery run, and progress. How many times have these cars, these people, stopped, in awe of nature in their own backyards? This week they stopped where the egrets did. On the 89 pond, the stopped cars don't have much to see beside the stillness of the egrets. The white birds seem enough.
They are for me. Wading imperceptibly, one bird takes a stab into the water. Every ten seconds or so this recurs. The movement, however quick, doesn't affect the group's stillness.
People have been trying to glean something from egrets for a long time. It started as hats. Egret plumage made great wear for women's hats. Around the 1890's state Audubon societies started forming to protect birds from the feather trade. This represented one of the first explicit conservation movements. Wearing birds on your head meant you were progressive, upper middle class, but it also meant that someone had killed a bird to put on your head. Activists against feathered hats declared hats “unwomanly.” Their arguments considered the grace and beauty of the birds, their use on farms keeping down insects, but their most provocative argument at the time was that the birds being killed were mothers. In the case of snowy egrets in Florida, it was most useful to wait until the birds had a nest and then raid the nest since they adults wouldn't leave their young. Adults were killed, the young left to die in their nests. This imagery twisted the meaning of hat wearing from fashion to morality—women were embracing womanhood with hats, but in doing so they were killing mothers.
Of course, the women weren't doing the actual killing. The complicity of the middle men—sportsmen and shippers—was overlooked. Also overlooked was the ecology of the egret. Females were not the only birds dying. Egrets split time on the nest, and so half of the dead birds were male. The other arguments about the grace and the beauty of the birds don't necessarily hold up either. Egrets practice siblicide, where the larger chicks kill their younger siblings. They're also a bit awkward landing in trees, as I witnessed. The snowy egret became, and still is, part of the logo for the National Audubon Society. The efforts of activists reversed the prospects of many birds, and egrets have been recovering since. It is estimated that more than 95% of the egret population in North America was killed in the 19th and early 20th century.
You can find a lot of this history, and much more environmental history, in Jennifer Price's book Flight Maps. Price argues that the birds of the feather trade were unmoored from their ecology and the destruction of habitat and birds came about because economic forces separated connections to nature.
Where did the egrets at Faville Grove come from? Probably Horicon Marsh, or another rookery around the Oshkosh area. With such numbers though, it's possible that the birds we witnessed this past week were from all over: the Mississippi River, Canada, Minnesota. Those sixteen great egrets the first day were perhaps a flight map for other migrating egrets this week. They found wetlands, stillness, frogs, and insects. We were happy to have them.
Photo by Dennis Church, Flickr Creative Commons