In the last half of the nineteenth century, egrets were in danger of going extinct. Harvested for their plumes, they were sold by the thousands to milliners in New York and London. They were killed by the thousands during the nesting season when they were in breeding plumage (like the snowy egret pictured) without regard to their nestlings which were left to starve or be eaten. In the latter part of the century, it was estimated that as many as fifty species of birds were being killed for their feathers.
Distressed by what they saw, two Boston socialites became activists to bring an end to the slaughter. Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall first called for a boycott of the trade. They were joined by over 900 society ladies and, ultimately, their activism lead to the formation of the National Audubon Society and the passage 100 years ago of the Migratory Bird Act which brought an end to the market hunting of birds and their interstate transport. If it had not been for these two ladies, many of the birds we enjoy today might have gone the way of the passenger pigeon. Estimated to be one of the most abundant birds in the world, the pigeon went from numbering in the billions as late as 1850 to being extinct just fifty years later.