The next past environmental hero we want to tell you about requires a bit of a backstory to set the stage. In 1886, Frank Chapman—founder of Audubon Magazine—decided to take a stroll from his uptown Manhattan office to the heart of the fashion district on 14th Street. Along the way, Chapman, a talented birder, counted a total 174 birds comprising 40 species, including woodpeckers, orioles, bluebirds, blue jays, terns, and owls. A pretty impressive array of birds for the middle of New York City—right? Hardly. You see the problem was that all the birds Chapman counted that day adorned the hats that sat on the top of women’s heads.
In the late nineteenth century, America’s hat craze was in full swing. To satisfy this overwhelming fashion demand, millinery companies needed countless colorful and flowing bird feathers. This spelled doom for millions of North American wild birds, which were slaughtered in droves. The greedy practice became so lucrative that plume hunters would often wipe out all the birds in a rookery (nesting area)—taking just the feathers and leaving eggs to rot and newly hatched chicks to starve to death. The going feather rate was $32 per ounce—more valuable than gold at the time.
In 1896, nearly five million birds, representing fifty different species, were killed for fashion. Entire populations of shorebirds and wading birds—including herons, egrets, spoonbills, gulls, and terns—along the Atlantic Coast were wiped out. But this despicable situation was about to change in a very dramatic way. Enter Harriett Lawrence Hemenway!
Most successful environmental organizations owe their starts to individuals with a deep and abiding respect for and dedication to the natural world. This is certainly the case with the Massachusetts Audubon Society. For much of her life, through early adulthood, Harriet Lawrence Hemenway lived a life of luxury and privilege at the pinnacle of Boston society, in a family dominated by accomplished men.
Although she escaped to watch birds along the Charles River whenever she could, Hemenway spent most of her time as a prominent socialite, moving gracefully through all the right places while always decked out to the nines in the latest trendy fashions. That was until she sat down on a cold winter day in 1896 and read a newspaper story that made her blood boil and caused all hell to break loose within the confines of polite Boston society.
When Hemenway read about thousands upon thousands of magnificent wading birds being slaughtered just for feathers to decorate women’s hats, she knew she had found her life’s calling. From that day forward, she became a true “Champion of Conservation” and girded herself for the battle she knew would soon follow with the male-dominated world.
Hemenway’s portrait by the famous artist John Singer Sargent shows an arrestingly handsome woman, with a deep-set gaze that practically shouts out “don’t trifle with me . . . no matter who you are!” Soon after she read the bloodcurdling account of entire rookeries being wiped out in Florida, many of the cocky men who thought they ruled the roost in Boston were being called on the carpet to atone for the sins of the millinery trade.
The first thing Hemenway did was to contact her cousin Minna B. Hall. Together, they organized a series of ladies’ teas, with the intent of discussing much more than the latest social goings-on. Hemenway and Hall first told the women about what was happening to wild birds just to assuage society’s haute couture needs. Then they beseeched their guests to start refusing to buy hats with bird feathers and to rally everyone else they knew to do the same.
Their strategy worked like a charm. Using their social networks as a springboard, Hemenway and Hall reached out to hundreds of scientists and businesspeople and soon had gathered enough support to establish the Massachusetts Audubon Society (MAS) in 1896. MAS was the oldest Audubon Society in the country, leading to the creation of many state-level Audubon societies which eventually united into the National Audubon Society in 1905. [Note: As an ironic exception, the MAS still prides itself on being totally independent of all other Audubon societies, including the National Audubon Society (NAS)].
In less than a year, the MAS had applied sufficient pressure to convince the Massachusetts legislature to outlaw the wild bird feather trade in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Within two more years, bird lovers in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Maine, Iowa, Texas, Colorado, and the District of Columbia had followed Hemenway and Hall’s lead. Women in all these states started societies dedicated to ending the feather trade and then convinced male civic leaders and local scientists to join the cause. On average, women accounted for about eighty percent of the membership of each Audubon Society, including fifty percent of the leadership roles.
In 1900—just four years after Hemenway and Hall started their work—Congress passed the Lacey Act, which provided the necessary legal teeth for prohibiting the interstate shipment of wild species killed in violation of state laws. By 1905, operating off this federal legal benchmark, thirty-three states had moved to pass their own versions of the Lacey Act and the millinery trade of wild bird feathers—while still breathing slightly—was on life support.
The death knell finally started ringing in 1911. First, New York State passed the Audubon Plumage Bill—a legal triumph that banned the sale of plumes of all native birds and shut down the domestic feather trade in the state. Then the 1913, the Weeks-McLean Law prohibited the spring hunting and marketing of migratory birds while the Underwood Tariff Act banned all importation of feathers except for purposes of scientific research or education. https://www.fws.gov/birds/mbtreaty100/timeline.php These two laws placed all migratory birds nationwide under federal jurisdiction—finally ending the wild bird plume trade in the US for good.
In the final analysis, America’s Audubon Societies played the critical role in changing people’s attitudes toward killing birds for their feathers. And it all started because Harriet Lawrence Hemenway read an article that upset her, took to a venue that she knew well—high society tea parties—and started the ball rolling.
There’s an old adage that the best advice anyone can give to an aspiring writer is “just write about what you know.” Whether the goal is protecting wild birds or deciding how to most effectively deal with climate change, this principle can be modified only slightly to “just work with who you know.” Each of us has a unique sphere of influence—family, friends, and community members we connect with on a regular basis. Using our zeal for climate solutions within our sphere might start with local changes but could also spill into national changes—you might be amazed by what you can accomplish!
In 1920, the US Supreme Court upheld the most powerful piece of legislation ever passed to protect wild birds. Still in effect today, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (which updated and replaced the 1913 Weeks-McLean Law) gives all migratory birds full federal protection. This statute makes it illegal to take any action that could either directly harm (i.e., pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, or sell) a migratory bird or indirectly impact its nesting habitat. This protection is extended to both live and dead birds, including any bird parts, feathers, eggs, and nests. https://www.fws.gov/laws/lawsdigest/migtrea.html
More than 1,000 species are currently on the list of birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. https://www.fws.gov/birds/policies-and-regulations/laws-legislations/migratory-bird-treaty-act.php Writing for the majority in this landmark decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared, “Without such measures, one could foresee a day when no birds would survive for any power—state or federal—to regulate.”