Egrets Returning to Bay Farm

Leigh Anne Stump. A great egret flies over the Bay Farm lagoons with some building material for its new nest.

Bay Farm residents have come to know and love two species of heron that also call their neighborhood home. Both the great and snowy egret nest on Bay Farm Island near the lagoons that provide the birds with the small fish they need to survive. As the larger of the two species, the great egret Ardea alba stands nearly three feet tall and generally weighs about two pounds. Its cousin, the smaller snowy egret, Egretta thula, weighs about half as much. Observers can easily distinguish the great from the snowy egret. The snowy egret sports a handsome plume on the back of its head and has yellow feet. The bird’s larger relative has no plume and its black feet match its legs. Both these species are “partially migratory,” so only a certain percentage of the bird migrate seasonally and it not unusual to see (and hear) both great and snowy egrets here on the Island City. The birds live together in colonies called rookeries. The great egret chooses trees for its habitat, while the snowy egret more commonly nests at ground level. The snowy egrets on Bay Farm Island, however, have learned a lesson from their larger cousins and choose to nest in the trees away from prying humans. Together their nests on Bay Farm form one of the largest egret colonies in the Bay Area. They make their homes not only here, but in rookeries across Europe, Asia, Africa and other parts of the Americas. They are at home in both freshwater and saltwater marshland habitats. The state of California protects these birds by placing them on its “special animals list” and for good reason. Victorian-era milliners treasured the feathers from these, and numerous other birds, to make the hats popular in the late 19th century. According to author Renee Thompson in 1885 “plume hunters” killed more than five million birds in the United States for the millinery industry. By 1903 the price for plumes that the trade offered to hunters was $32 per ounce. This made the plumes worth about twice their weight in gold; later these precious feather would fetch $80 an ounce. Actions went beyond plume hunting. According to the Wild Life Center of the North Coast, fashionable hats included not only plumes and other feathers, but real bird nests, bird wings and even small dead birds. Egg hunters got into the act when they discovered the multitude of eggs at seabird breeding colonies. For example the Farralon Egg Company set a record when its workers removed more than 120,000 common murre eggs in just a two-day period. Milliners and hunters alike especially favored the both the great egret and especially the more plentiful, more widely distributed, more approachable, and more delicately plumed snowy egret. “These birds had evolved extravagant breeding plumage as sexual advertisements to attract their mates,” Stanford University writers Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin and Darryl Wheye stated in a 1988 study. “The feathers, apparently, had such a similar effect on 19th century men that sources of supply began to disappear. So extensive was the decoupling of egrets and their skins that egrets were adopted as the symbol of the bird preservation movement,” the Stanford study stated. The National Geographic Society estimates that the great egret population “plunged by some 95 percent” during this period. In 1918 the federal government stepped in to put an end to plume hunting. Stipulations in the Great Migratory Bird Act stopped the plume hunters at every turn. The law took a long list of birds that included the great and snowy egrets under its aegis and forbade plume hunters from “pursuing, hunting, taking, capturing, killing or attempting to take, capture or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell or offer to purchase at any time, or in any manner, any migratory bird, included in the terms of this convention.” Thanks to laws like these the outlook for both the great and snowy egret has brightened considerably. Because these birds have enjoyed legal protection over the last 96 years their numbers have increased substantially. Today, the great egret enjoys not only protection but special status among conservationists. For example, the National Audubon Society has adopted the great egret as its mascot.

Brendan Champlin contributed to this story.

Leigh-Anne Stump Snowy egrets with their distinctive yellow feet and head plumage roost in trees on Bay Farm Island