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John O'Reilly
April 25, 1955
The fur flew when conservationists and women's clubs set out at the turn of the century to stop the plume hunters
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April 25, 1955

The Great Feather Fight

The fur flew when conservationists and women's clubs set out at the turn of the century to stop the plume hunters

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Down on Cape Sable, the southernmost tip of the Florida peninsula, a small stone marks a lonely grave. On the stone is the following inscription:

Guy M. Bradley
Faithful Unto Death
As Game Warden of Monroe County
He Gave His Life For The Cause To
Which He Was Pledged.

Bradley, a warden hired by the National Association of Audubon Societies to protect wild birds, was shot and killed by plume hunters on July 8, 1905. The finding of his body two days later spurred one of the bitterest battles ever waged in this country for the protection of wildlife. It was a vehement battle and one in which women were deeply involved. It was known as "the feather fight."

At the beginning of this century women's hats were something to behold. Feathers were the rage and it appeared that the more bird plumes there were on a woman's hat the more beautiful she was supposed to be. Sometimes hats even supported an entire stuffed bird, as delineated in that old song, The Bird on Nellie's Hat. Of all these fine feathers the most treasured were the plumes of the egrets, known in the millinery trade as "aigrettes." On the American egret and the snowy egret, they were the nuptial plumage (at their prime in the nesting season) and gave the birds an airy beauty. When standing erect on hats they gave women a look of chronic astonishment.

The feather trade had grown to such proportions that egrets in Florida had been shot to near extinction by commercial plume hunters.

One reason for the swift decline of the birds was that, since the plumes were at their best when the birds were nesting, the hunters shot the adult birds and left the young to die in the nest. The Florida legislature had passed laws protecting the birds but there had been no funds upcoming to enforce them.

A group of Audubon societies banded together and supplied money to hire wardens. Bradley was one of them. His death brought action on a large and vociferous scale. Many persons went to the aid of the newly formed National Association of Audubon Societies, later changed to National Audubon Society. The fight was carried to New York, center of the wholesale millinery trade. The bird people were up against a $17,000,000 industry fighting for its life.

Both sides hired lawyers and lobbyists. More and more women tore the feathers off their hats, vowing never to wear them again. On July 18, 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt wrote an open letter throwing his weight behind the movement.

"If anything," he added, " Mrs. Roosevelt feels even more strongly than I do in this matter."

The egret plume was dubbed "the white badge of cruelty."

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