How a Fashion Trend Led to an Eastern Oregon Bloodbath–and How It Was Stopped

Photograph courtesy of the Audubon Society.

Few people other than outdoorsy Oregonians and avid birders had ever heard of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon before Ammon Bundy and his gang of armed militants occupied it for six weeks in the early days of 2016. Some feared at the time that the occupation would lead to bloodshed in a pristine environment.

What they didn’t know was that the refuge had already been the site of a massive bloodbath a hundred years before.

From the late 19th C through the early years of the 20th C, one of history’s most dismaying fashion trends was the wearing of feathers and even entire birds on women’s hats. According to historian Douglas Brinkley, at the height of this trend more than five million birds were being slaughtered each year in the name of fashion.

Images from the Pacific Standard website.

During just two walks down the streets of Manhattan in 1866, ornithologist Frank Chapman spied the feathers of at least 40 kinds of birds on hundreds of hats, including Grebes, Virginia Rails, California Quail, Pileated Woodpeckers, Bobolinks, Scarlet Tanagers, Meadowlarks and Cedar Waxwings.

More popular than all of these, however, were the feathers of Herons and Swans and especially the Great and Snowy Egrets, all of which could be found in the remote wetlands in and around what would one day become the Malheur refuge. The slaughter there was well under way when two of Oregon’s earliest environmentalist, William L. Finley and Hermany T. Bohlman, began to catalogue it and work to end it.

According to author Carey Myles, who writes about Finley and Bohlman in a chapter called “The Plume Defenders” in a new book about Oregon birding (A History of Oregon Ornithology, Oregon State University Press, 2022), the pair first arrived in the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake area in the summer of 1905, tasked by the National Association of Audubon Societies with “documenting species though notes and photographs, and determining conditions for birds.”

Flocks of birds, Malheur Lake, photograph by William L. Finley, 1908. Courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society.

Having traveled on horseback from Ashland, Oregon, “carrying camping equipment, three cameras and 700 glass plates,” they created a blind with a large umbrella and a surrounding ring of green canvas and focused first on photographing American White Pelicans. In the hot, cramped interior, the two took turns bent over a large camera, photographing for up to eight hours a day before moving on to other species.

As Myles writes:

It wasn’t until spring and summer of 1908 that Finley and Bohlman were able to complete their inspection of Oregon’s interior wetlands by visiting Malheur Lake and the surrounding marshes. They were overwhelmed by the richness of birdlife they found there, but also dismayed to find that such remote marshes had been significantly impacted by market hunting…

They discovered a Western Grebe nesting ground shortly after plume hunters had been through. Finley and Bohlman were enraged to find the bodies of dead birds with just the soft breast feathers removed. Still, they kept the goal of using photographs to argue for conservation in mind. Finding a dead grebe in the water next to two downy, hungry chicks sitting in their nest, they took multiple photographs, taking care over the composition.

Their photographs, with the bird’s blood colored red, were used as lantern slides for Audubon Society lectures about the evils of the plume trade. According to the Friends of Malheur website, “their photographs and testimony caught the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt,” who eventually signed an executive order designating 80,000 acres around Mud, Harney and Malheur Lakes “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds”–one of 51 bird reserves Roosevelt established during his presidency.

A local family with their harvest of swans. Image from the Friends of Malheur website.

Ten years later, in 1918, the United States and Canada enacted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which made it illegal to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, or sell” any of the birds on a list of 1,100 species. The list covers almost every bird in North America (with limited exceptions for hunting and non-native species). To this day, it is against the law to even possess anything connected to these birds, including their feathers, eggs and nests.

Today, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a rare and beautiful wetlands area teeming with birds of all kinds. For a list of species and information on what you’ll see there in different seasons, click here. And for directions on how to visit, click here.

Image from the Portland Community College website.

A few more links:

A History of Oregon Ornithology: From Territorial Days to the Rise of Birding, edited by Alan L. Contreras, Vjera E. Thompson, and Nolan M. Clements, with a link for ordering from Oregon State University Press (2022, $34.95)

Refuge history page on the Friends of Malheur website

Oregon History Project page about the Finley photograph shown above, with suggestions for further reading

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Explained,”on the Audubon Society’s website

National Resources Defense Council webpage on recent threats to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Plume Trade,” the gory details about the slaughtering of birds and how it was stopped

Hats Off to Women Who Saved the Birds,” a fascinating article by PBS on how women, who were being blamed for the slaughter, took the initiative to end it

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