Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

April 8, 2007

Nome de Plume

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:10 am

April 7, 2007

 Great Egrets, those large white fish eating birds that inhabit our local marshes, have been called many things.  Many folks commonly call them “Cranes,” but that doesn’t make it right.  Cranes are a completely different kind of bird.  Others call them “Herons,” but that too is mostly wrong.  Our local Herons come in Great Blue, Green, Night and other assorted varieties, but are not Egrets.  Granted, it’s close, because Egrets are in the Heron family but calling them herons is like calling a Raccoon a Weasel or a Pepsi a….Coke or something.

  To further confuse things, the name “Egret” comes from the Old French “aigrette” which translates out to “heron.”  But, what do the French know, eh?  They are Europeans after all, and Europeans call the “Moose” an “Elk”, and say that an “Elk” is really a “Red Deer.”  O.K., so we Americans call our robins “robins” even though there was a European bird of that name long before our American bird was given its Nome de plume.  Technically we call our version an “American Robin,” so, you see, there really is no confusion on our part.

  The reason I’m delving into this somewhat un-necessary diatribe is to bring up the name “Angel Bird.”  This is another name by which the Great Egret is known and one which I, up until this morning, little understood. Now I get it.

  Vicious westerly winds and driving snow had forced a gang of Egrets to shelter up against lee side of a thick stand of brown cat-tails.  They huddled together with their long necks pulled down between hunched shoulders.  They were standing ankle deep in the shallow water while waiting the storm out. One befuddled bird briefly attempted to walk over the nearby ice surface, but looked unnatural and ungainly – not a usual egret trait.

  All of these birds were in breeding condition, with beautiful powder green skin in front of each eye and a magnificent cape of long delicate plumes across their back.  The cascade of plumes plummeted over the tail and gently touched the water surface.  This gave the seven birds the appearance of, well, angels in gossamer robes.  Angel Birds!

  These splendid plumes, which originate at the shoulder, are several feet long. Each bird is possessed of 50 or so and they grow them exclusively for the breeding season (which will begin as soon as this insane winter blast ends). The plumes are employed during a courtship ritual that includes a “fan dance” where the array is raised up like a turkey’s tail. After the brief mating time is over, they drop off and quickly disintegrate. Nuptial plumes, as they are called, are as temporary as the petals of a trout lily or a politician’s promise.  They are also a stark reminder of just how close the Great Egret came to extinction.

  A hundred years ago, the egrets themselves were in danger of disintegrating as a species because of those nuptial plumes.  Market hunters hammered the birds to reap the plumes for the use in the hat market.  It was in the early 1900’s style to adorn ladies hats with all kinds of bird parts (including whole stuffed birds) and the Egret plumes were on the top of the list.  The nuptial plumes were marketed as “aigrettes.”  At one point, the feathers commanded an astronomical price of $512.00 per pound.  It took 70 or so birds to yield that much product, so Egrets were being slaughtered into oblivion.

  Fortunately this trade was ended with protective legislation and the dedicated efforts of the National Audubon Society – who now use the bird as their symbol.

  The sullen group of seven before me may not appreciate the fact that their kind was plucked from the brink only to freeze to death in a freak spring freeze.  They will, however, survive.  Like angels rising out of the ashes of time, the Angel bird has become a Phoenix as well.


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