by Stephanie Smith
July 21, 2016
A great egret (Ardea alba) lands in Kenilworth Marsh in Washington, D.C. Growing to more than three feet tall with a 55-inch wingspan, great egrets are the largest of the three egret species that call the Chesapeake Bay region home.
In the United States, great egret populations are not currently listed as endangered. But in the 19th century, the birds were hunted nearly to extinction for their plumage. In breeding season, long, delicate plumes—called aigrettes—grow from the egret’s back, and these feathers were in high-demand in the fashion world. Experts estimate that at the height of the feather trade, millions of egrets, herons and other birds were killed for their feathers.
In the late 1890s, cousins Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall began a boycott of the feather trade. The pair formed the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which would eventually grow to become the National Audubon Society—the symbol of which is the great egret. Decades later, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protected migratory birds like the great egret from human activities like hunting and capturing.