Taxidermy in the UK

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Great Crested Grebes (Podiceps cristatus).

Towards the end of the Victorian era in Britain, several waterfowl birds were seriously threatened with extinction due to the demands of fashion. For example, the skin and soft underpelt and head frills of the great crested grebe's feathers were particularly in demand by the millinery trade to decorate ladies' fancy hats and ruffs. The only way to obtain such feathers was by killing the birds. In one year, according to the official trade figures of auctions at the London Commercial Sales Rooms, some 1,608 packages of heron plume came under the hammer.
Pictoral view of a pending mordern case of Great Crested Grebes. Another collaborative effort, with a nest scene. Unclear as to whether we should incorporate eggs into this scene currently. One bird will be swimming and the other on the nest raft. Most grebes were unfortunately mounted like Penguins, which frankly is a waste of such a fabulous bird.

'Grebe Fur'

Great Crested Grebe by Mike Gadd.

This was the skin and soft under-pelt of a great crested grebe's breast feathers, that were used as a fur substitute in ladies' fashions. Once this caught on, the superb head frill feathers of the adult grebes' breeding plumage became highly fashionable in the millinery trade. These feathers could only be taken by killing the birds. As a result, numbers of grebes fell rapidly. The fashion for decorating fancy hats with wild-caught feathers was waning before legislation could be put in place to prevent their use, but the Society had its influence even then.By 1860, the great crested grebe was nearly extinct in Britain and Ireland. From the protests of this trade the R.S.P.B. was formed.
Great Crested Grebe in summer plumage, awaiting skining.

Great Crested Grebe in summer plumage, awaiting skining.

Such was the demand for feather in Victorian times, that pressure was placed upon both domestic birds (Herons, Egrets, Great Crested Grebes) as well as those from the colonies. By example when the then Duke of York was resented with a feather for his hat, trade in Huia feathers increased to such an extent that the bird was declared extinct by 1907.Only taxidermy specimens of this once prized species remain. Commonly utilised British birds for the feather trade included Gull, Herons, Terns, Jays, Pheasants, finches and Grebes. It is also worth noting that The Great Auk’s demise was in part principally due to the over exploitation of the bird for its feathers following the decline of the North Atlantic Eider duck decades before that. The Gannet was also exploited in the UK very much for the same reason as Eider ducks and their demise was also duly recorded by Thomas Booth during his collecting of specimens in the late 1800’s.
Great Crested Grebe awaiting fleshing.

During two walks along the streets of Manhattan in 1886, the American Museum of Natural History's ornithologist, Frank Chapman, spotted 40 native species of birds including sparrows, warblers, and woodpeckers. But the birds were not flitting through the trees -- they had been killed, and for the most part, plucked, disassembled, or stuffed, and painstakingly positioned on three-quarters of the 700 women's hats Chapman saw. The North American feather trade was in its heyday.
Great Crested Grebe awaiting fleshing. This bird has been skinned with a back incision.

Throughout the preceding 30 years, general economic prosperity of a growing middle class had provided opportunities to purchase nonessentials. Emulating the fashionable elite, men selected fedoras with feather trim and women adorned their hair, hats, and dresses with "aigrettes" (sprays) of breeding plumage taken from a variety of birds. Accordingly, women's hats became larger, hat ornamentation (reminiscent of that found on dress military headgear) became more lavish, and the feather trade expanded its enterprise to include marketing the remains of some 64 species from 15 genera of native birds.
Great Crested Grebe head in close up.

Herons were favoured. The Great Egret and especially the more plentiful, more widely distributed, more approachable, and more delicately plumed Snowy Egret, suffered great losses. These birds had evolved extravagant breeding plumage as sexual advertisements to attract their mates. The feathers, apparently, had such a similar effect on 19th-century men that sources of supply began to disappear. So extensive was the decoupling of egrets and their skins that egrets were adopted as the symbol of the bird preservation movement. Writers such as Herbert job began to focus their protests on the robbing of heron rookeries: Here are some official figures of the trade from one source alone, of auctions at the London Commercial Sales Rooms during 1902. There were sold 1,608 packages of... herons' plumes. A package is said to average in weight 30 ounces. This makes a total of 48,240 ounces. As it requires about four birds to make an ounce of plumes, these sales meant 192,960 herons killed at their nests, and from two to three times that number of young or eggs destroyed. Is it, then, any wonder that these species are on the verge of extinction?
Great Crested Grebe head in close up.

There was no question that plume trading had become a very lucrative business. "In 1903," job continued, "the price for plumes offered to hunters was $32 per ounce, which makes the plumes worth about twice their weight in gold." (Later they were to bring $80!) It should not be surprising that the millinery trade, an industry employing 83,000 people (1 of every 1,000 Americans) in 1900, stood fast against claims of cruelty and exploitation and offered the public false assurances. It was carefully explained, for instance, that the bulk of feather collection was limited to shed plumes -- those found scattered on the ground within rookeries. In truth, those "dead plumes" brought only one-fifth the price of the live, unblemished, little-worn ones. To counteract the charges of cruelty, claims were circulated that most feather trim was either artificial or produced on foreign farms that exported moulted feathers. The demand for egret feathers, nonetheless, began to slip.
No sooner was the public weaned off egrets than it fixed its attention on seabirds of the Atlantic coast. And harvesting did not stop there. Hunting of West Coast terns, grebes, White Pelicans, and albatrosses for ornamental feathers also expanded. By the turn of the century many millions of birds were being killed by plume hunters each year. Preservationists struggled to enact laws to prevent the killing, possession, sale, and importation of plume birds and ornamental feathers. They disseminated their information through numerous periodicals (including Bird Lore and Audubon Magazine), many books, and the campaigns of the American Ornithologists' Union (founded in 1883), the Audubon Society, and other conservation organizations. The Audubon Society offered public lectures on such topics as "Woman as a bird enemy" and erected Audubon-approved millinery displays. It also selected regulatory committees to audit the millinery sold in key areas. These actions helped more women to recognize their role in the issue and more men in the millinery trade (whose livelihoods had come from encouraging those women into that role) to change their orientation as interest in feathered fashions subsided.
In 1889, two small concerned groups decided that if they got together something could be done. One was Mrs Emily Williamson's Plumage League in Didsbury, Manchester, which met at the local Fletcher Moss Botanical Gardens to campaign against the craze for egret feathers from Florida. The other was the Fur and Feathers League run by Mrs Phillips in Croydon, near London, which campaigned against the killing of grebes.
It was decided to complete this case in the same style as cases that can be found both in the Booth museum in Brighton and also the cases that were regularly produced by TE Gunn of Norwich. The decision not to follow the style of placing the birds on their legs and position them upright was taken as normally these birds do not exhibit this behavoir and if they do it is both ungainly and infrequent. Grebes as best and most often observed on the water. In fact the evoilution of this species, has meant that the leg placement is situated far back on the body of the bird making movement across land cumbersome and almost impossible. Given that egg collecting is now illeagal and chicks are almost impossible to come by, it was decided to just create the nest without either the eggs and or chicks. To create the eggs visible would mean lifting the bird up which again would make the bird on the nest look abnormal. Historically TE Gunn used coloured glass to create the water effect, but now perspex can be used to sit one of the grebe's into the water, surrounded by weeds and the other bird on the nest. The perspex allows the placement of the bird into the water at the correct level and also allows the use and view of the feet, beneath the water line.

The American Experience

Plume Hunters

Plume hunters are no respecters of times and seasons. With them there are no closed seasons. The birds which they are after gather in large rookeries during the nesting season and are therefore much easier to capture then than at other times. Most of the herons and similar plume bearing birds are hunted and killed for the plumes alone, or, at most, for a very small part of the whole plumage. The part wanted is taken and the rest left to waste, while the birds body is never used for anything. If nothing worse, it is an unpardonable waste. In Florida alone whole rookeries of herons and ibises numbering hundreds and even thousands of individuals have been wholly destroyed.
Now the insatiable plume hunter, in his effort to supply the demands of a no less insatiable fashion, is pursuing the unfortunate birds into the fastnesses of Mexico and South America. There is but one way to stop this work of extermination, and that is to take away the demand. This remedy lies wholly in the hands of women. Unless they are willing to take a firm stand against the use of feathers for purposes of ornament the birds are doomed. This may seem like a strong statement, but a little reflection will prove it true. When the birds which are now hunted for plumes and feathers are gone, there will be a modification of the demand to include birds of different plumage, just as the aigrette is giving place to the quill. After the quill and the long-pointed wing will come the shorter wing, and after that the plumage of the small birds, and the cycle of destruction will be complete.
Some one may ask why it is that the birds are so foolish as to allow the hunter to kill hundreds in a single day from one rookery. Why don't they leave the region when the shooting begins? The plume hunter has learned cunning, he no longer uses a shot gun, but a small calibre rifle, or a wholly noiseless air gun. The rifle makes no more noise than the snapping of a twig, and will therefore not frighten the birds. By remaining concealed the hunter may kill every bird that is within range. Since each bird is worth from twenty-five cents to five dollars, according to the kind, a single days work (or slaughter) is profitable. The temptation is certainly great, and becomes almost irresistible to him who loves hunting for its own sake. The most cruel part of the whole business I have already stated, but it will bear repeating. It is the killing of the breeding birds before the young are able to care for themselves. There is abundant evidence that the breeding time is the favourite time for hunting among plume hunters, because then the old birds are more easy to kill, and because then the plumage is the most perfect, for then the wedding garments are put on.
As early as 1912, National Audubon Society had seasonal wardens in the Corkscrew swamp area to protect the then nesting colonies of wood storks, egrets, and other wading birds. In that year, B. Rhett of Fort Myers served as warden of the nesting colonies of the Corkscrew area of the Big Cypress. That was long before there was any cutting. The wood stork colony was estimated to contain about 1,000 birds, and even smaller was the number of great egrets. Those population estimates reveal strikingly the low numbers to which the wading birds of south Florida had been reduced by the plume hunters. According to its Sanctuary records, the Society continued warden patrol in the Corkscrew from 1912 through 1917. The following is an eye-witness account of an unpaid agent of the National Association of Audubon Societies camping in south Florida, dated February 27, 1912: "I spent two days and nights camped here, and made three counts of the Egrets as they came in to roost or left in the morning. The first time I saw 522, the next 534, and the last evening counted 541. "This is the scene where we shortly found that the plumers were shooting them, and the last night, as I was counting, shooting commenced on the other side of the Cypress, at least a mile from camp, and we counted 123 shots. Evidently four men with shotguns were shooting them at their roost, which is two miles from where they will nest. "We waded over a mile, waist deep, to find the camp of the hunters, and found it just deserted, the fire still burning, and showing that four men had just departed on horseback. "I trust you can prevail on some of the patrons and humane people to put a stop to this. It can be done easily with a little money, and, as there must be 600 birds that will begin nesting in two weeks, if unprotected there will not be a single bird left. "I can get a man to watch it -- a good man who lives in the woods and knows all the plume-hunters, and who will put a stop to it if you can raise enough money to engage him. We can get him deputized here also, and he will then tell all the hunters he is a warden to guard the Big Cypress until the birds leave. He will also guard the ---- Rookery and the ----- Rookery (names purposely omitted)." The inclusion of the local names of the rookeries would have pinpointed their location for plume hunters. According to this account in Bird-Lore, the two unnamed rookeries contained about 200 egrets and were the largest colonies on which the Association could get any positive information. The account is indicative to what an extent the once great colonies, even in the remote Big Cypress, had been reduced.
Ornamental feathers plucked from birds killed by plume hunters were worth $32 an ounce in 1903, or roughly twice their weight in gold, according to some historical accounts. Birds with beautiful long plumes, especially wading birds like herons and egrets, were slaughtered by the millions to supply the millinery industry. By 1903, the price of feathers had risen to $80 an ounce, and at far more than the price of gold, it became apparent that nature could no longer sustain itself to supply fashion, or the dinner table. With no laws in place to protect wildlife, whether it was for feathers or food, hundreds of millions of birds were killed by plume and market hunters. The passenger pigeon, whose flocks literally darkened the sky, became extinct, as did Carolina parakeets, Eskimo curlews and Labrador ducks. Pelicans were not spared, and they too almost became extinct for their feathers.
"They were after the adult birds when they were in breeding plumage," Carla Burnside, Malheur refuge archaeologist, said. "That is when the egrets have those fabulous feathers on their heads that stick up." Feathers plume hunters collected were sent to New York and Paris to decorate hats and as fashion accessories. Colourful feathers became so popular that ornithologist Frank Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History in New York identified 40 native species of birds on 700 women's hats during two strolls through Manhattan in 1886. To serve the enormous demand, the millinery trade employed 83,000 workers nationwide. Plume hunters nearly exterminated egrets in 1898 at what is now the Malheur refuge, Burnside said. The destruction of millions of birds nationwide triggered a bird preservation movement that had the egret as its symbol. President Theodore Roosevelt acted in August 1908, first creating the Lower Klamath Refuge as protection against market hunters for ducks.

The Lacy Act

The Lacey Act was passed in 1900 and represented the first national conservation law. The Lacey Act prohibited interstate transport of wildlife killed in violation of a state law, and also allowed individual states to prohibit import of wildlife or their products even if killed lawfully. For example, egret plumes taken in a state where the bird was protected could not be shipped to other states; in addition, a state could outlaw entry of the plumes even if collection was legal in the exporting state. In 1908 the scope of the Lacey Act was expanded to include wildlife imported from abroad. The Lacey Act contributed to the elimination of the meat markets where the last Labrador ducks were sold, and of the plume trade that nearly led to extinction for the snowy and common egrets as well as other water birds

Birds of paradise

Birds of paradise, killed solely for the plume trade and taxidermy.

Europeans first became aware of birds of paradise in the sixteenth century, after merchants returned from Indonesia with prepared specimens known as 'trade skins'. These skins were made to display the birds' fabulous plumes, and had the feet and wings cut off. As a result some Europeans thought that the birds did not have feet and spent their lives floating through the air, drinking dew and never touching the earth until their death. It was because of this that they were called birds of paradise. One species was even named Paradisea apoda, meaning 'the footless bird of paradise'.
The extraordinary beauty of these birds combined with the mysteries of their lifestyle meant that they were sought after by collectors, who often obtained them through the plume trade. The great collector Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) had a number of specimens in his own collection. Although some complete skins, including the feet and wings, had come to Europe from the early 1600s, scholars found it difficult to interpret the function of the males' courtship plumes and the nature of the birds' displays from only a few specimens.

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