Book Review: Saving American Birds

lady bird hatIt’s hard to imagine, but not that long ago many native bird species nearly became extinct for one, primary reason – ladies liked to wear feathers on their hats. And not just feathers. Some of the fancier hats were adorned with wings, heads and entire bird bodies.

Saving American Birds – T. Gilbert Pearson and the Founding of the Audubon Movement chronicles the life of T. Gilbert Pearson (no relation) and his leadership in the Audubon movement, which, among other things, helped end the slaughter of birds for fashion. By some estimates, at least five millions birds were killed annually to fuel what was known as the plume trade.

t gilbert pearson

Pearson was born in 1873 in Tuscola, Illinois, but spent most of his youth in a small town near Gainesville, Florida. Like many naturalists, he preferred the outdoors to a school room. He often ditched class to hunt for birds. He taught himself taxidermy and how to preserve the many eggs he collected. When, at the age of 18, he decided he needed a better education to advance his interests in ornithology, he traded his “museum” – including the “largest scientific collection of bird-eggs in the South” – in exchange for two years’ tuition, room and board at Guilford College near Greensboro, NC.

Like John James Audubon, Pearson first learned about birds by shooting them. It didn’t take long, however, for him to turn from hunter to protector:

“On a visit to a small swamp…he found a heron colony that plume hunters had raided a day or two earlier. Here and there around their still-smoldering campfire lay dead herons, their backs raw and bloody where plumes had been torn away. Starving baby birds called from their nests for food. Larger young birds perched uncertainly on limbs. Now and then one of them, too weak to hold on any longer, fell to the earth with a thud. All the young were dying. Under tall grass was the body of an adult that had hidden after being shot. Before dying, it had beaten the ground smooth with its wings, trying to rise. In later years, whenever Pearson wanted to dramatize the cruelties of plume hunting, he drew upon [such] memories.”

saving birds cover

The book, by Oliver H. Orr, Jr., does not delve deeply into Pearson the man, but as the subtitle indicates it does use Pearson as a means to chart the early years of the Audubon movement – from the initial national organization founded in 1886, through its dissolution, followed by the rise of individual societies, which in 1905, organized as the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals (today, simply, Audubon.) Pearson played a critical role in writing model legislation, passed by many states, which gave the Audubon Society the authority to hire wardens to enforce bird protection laws. In some instances, enforcement came at great cost. Protecting nesting plume birds in the Florida Keys, warden Guy Bradley was murdered; his assailants, who admitted to killing egrets illegally, were never charged.

Fortunately, that kind of violence against both people (at least in regard to enforcing wildlife protection laws) and birds has largely gone the way of bird hats. But birds continue to face yet other threats, namely from the loss of habitat.

That’s a big part of the reason why I volunteer at Midewin. At nearly 20,000 acres, Midewin is big enough to support large numbers of a diverse array of birds; providing them a safe place to feed, rest and raise their young.

120630 heron rookery

And even though most of Midewin has yet to be restored to its natural state, overall it is managed in such a way that birds are returning in encouraging numbers. Already there is a growing heron colony near the site of a massive accidental explosion during Midewin’s former arsenal days.

120623 grasshopper sparrow

And every spring, I monitor a Midewin tract that is a magnet for so many different kinds of grassland birds that it’s virtually impossible to count them all.

A century ago, T. Gilbert Pearson acknowledged that “the stage has been reached in the evolutionary process at which birds must depend for their very existence upon the favors of the coming generations.” At Midewin, it’s great to be a part of that effort.

120623 boblink
Of the male bobolink’s song, Thoreau wrote, “It is as if he touched his harp with a vase of liquid melody, and when he lifted it out, the notes fell like bubbles from the strings…away he launches, and the meadow is all bespattered with melody.”