Baltimore Oriole in P.Taverner's 1921 edition of Birds of Eastern Canada

Baltimore Oriole in P. Taverner’s 1921 edition of Birds of Eastern Canada. The Oriole was a popular cage bird in the 19th & early 20th century

T-99 – or Day 2 of 100 Days of Blogging

10 Outrageous Facts in Bird Conservation History – PART 2

Yesterday we started our countdown to the 100th Anniversary of Bird Protection Quebec on January 4th 2017 with a look at 10 Outrageous Facts from Bird Conservation History. For part 2 we continue with our theme of history in the era leading up to the passing of the MBCA and throw in a few local anecdotes from Montreal and the province of Quebec. 


1.  Canaries for Sale Sold Out

Birds became one of the most popular pets in North America by the early 1900’s across all economic classes. While more modest households might keep birds in a simple cage, the wealthy often had huge aviaries. The range of native wild bird species that might be found within them was quite broad. Baltimore orioles, bobolinks, rose-breasted grosbeaks, eastern-bluebirds, indigo buntings, gray catbirds, purple finches, black-capped chickadees, Northern cardinals, American goldfinches and Northern mockingbirds have all been cited as popular cage birds into the early part of the 20th century.

In Montreal, boy bird nesters used snares to trap birds which were then sold to shops. Interestingly, the City of Montreal passed a by-law in 1873 which forbade injuring birds in any way, taking eggs or young or disturbing nests or shooting any type of birds within city limits. Regardless, trapping birds still went on – accounts exist of the CSPCA freeing red-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, bobolinks and house finches from stores in the city prior to the passing of the MBCA banning the possession of migratory birds.

(Unfortunately, the underground trade in Canada and around the world of exotic birds still continues today. You can read more here )

2. Eek, there’s a dead bird on my head!

Three fashionable Canadian Women in feather fashion. ( courtesy Connie Morgenstern)

Photograph of  fashionable women in feather adorned hats c. 1890s.                                   

I admit pilfering that sub-heading from a children’s book title, but it seems to sum up perfectly the story of how two socialites went from wearing hats with feathers to organizing against them. As the story goes, on a cold winter morning in January of 1896 (what is it with cold winter days in January that seems to mobilize people?), Boston socialite Harriet Hemenway sat down, flipped open a magazine article and read with horror of how those birds and feathers she’d been wearing on her hats really ended up there.

Hemenway read how plume hunters ravaged rookeries, that adult Great Egrets were shot in their full breeding plumage because the long beautiful feathers only in display during mating season were highly desirable in the millenary trade. That market hunters first skinned the birds and just left the bodies behind and how the nestlings were left abandoned to starve as a result. Infuriated by what she had read Hemenway summoned her cousin Minna Hall. Together, over a cup of tea (they were Boston socialites after all) they strategized and sifted through the Society Register.

The cousins made a list of “ladies of fashion likely to wear aigrettes on their hats or their hair.” Then they invited them to tea and persuaded as many as they could to their cause. What resulted was the re-founding of the abandoned Audubon Society as the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which quickly numbered over 100 more chapters across the state and the eventual surge of public awareness that led to legislation to combat the feather trade.

3. Federal Legislation – Lacey Act in 1900

 As a result of the initiatives of  the Audubon Society and prominent ornithologists to sway public sympathy for the plight of the birds targeted by the feather trade, the Lacey Act was passed into law 1900. This federal legislation made it illegal to sell birds killed in one state in another. Unfortunately, is was poorly enforced and poaching continued.

4. The Plume Wars

Post Card from the Everglades 1940s: Egrets recovering

Post card from the early 20th century from the Florida Everglades depicting Great Egret and its young .

In the United States the Plume Wars refer to the murder of game warden Guy Bradley who was hired by the American Ornithologists’ Union to patrol the Florida Everglades for plume hunters poaching wading bird populations. A reformed plume hunter himself, Bradley was murdered in a confrontation with poachers. His killer was acquitted and Bradley became somewhat of a martyr for the movement. Two subsequent wardens were also killed.

5. Early Game Bird Protection in Quebec

The Province of Quebec Society for the Protection of Fish and Game was founded in 1857 in Montreal to protect the overhunting of game birds. Interestingly, one of the founders, George Horne, describes that its inception was largely induced by guilt. Apparently, he and a friend were out hunting woodcock and snipes (they had shot a dozen or so of each) and on their way home came upon another snipe which they flushed and shot. Upon retrieving the bird they came upon its nest and eggs. Horne later wrote that they immediately felt guilty about the abundant number they had already shot that day and that put and end their spring shooting. He credits the incident with the founding of the organization as well as subsequent amendments to game laws. At the time, Spring shooting was regularly practiced on Mount Royal in the area of the present day cemetery.


6. Billions and Billions of Passenger Pigeons

The passenger pigeon was once so abundant that flocks could take days to fly over an area and observers describe blackened skies as a result. Population numbers hardly seem believable, but the passenger pigeon once numbered in the billions. Their nesting colonies could cover several hundred square miles in area. They congregated in such massive flocks that it made them easy targets to shoot at.  An account of the bird in Toronto describes a flock estimated to be from 1 to 3 billion birds in size. Closer to home, in 1874 the Montreal CSPCA promoted a closed season on the bird to span several years because of its dwindling in numbers. However, relentless hunting brought a population estimated to be in the  billions to zero when the last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died on Sept 1,1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo.

7.  Birds for the Bride

Passenger pigeons were not only popular in pies and as restaurant fare,  apparently in St.Jerome Quebec, a mattress stuffed with passenger pigeon feathers were considered part of a proper dowry. One mattress could contain the feathers of 144 dozen pigeons and in some locales the feathers were believed to have healing powers, which is what made the feathers desirable stuffing (and one assumes much more comfortable than straw!) .

8. Acting to protect migratory birds in Canada

The Migratory Bird Convention Act was signed by the United States and Britain ( on behalf of Canada) on August 16th,1916 and then passed into law by Parliament in 1917. The act contains regulations to protect migratory birds, their eggs, and their nests from hunting, trafficking and trade.

While public awareness drove the creation of legislation to protect migratory birds In the US, in Canada it was largely initiated on the government level. Civil servants like Parks Commissioner James Harkin and Dominion Entomologist Gordon Hewitt negotiated the treaty in order to address the serious concerns about declines in Canadian waterfowl and seabird populations. Hewitt was also PQSPB’s first public speaker in April of 1917.

9. Bird Sanctuaries

Post card from the 1950s showing population of Northern Gannets at one of Quebec's earliest Federal Bird Sanctuaries.

The first Migratory Bird Sanctuaries (MBS) designated under the Migratory Birds Convention Act were the Bird Rocks and Bonaventure Island & Percé Rock sanctuaries, established in 1919, in Quebec. This addressed the serious depletions of bird populations but enforcement challenges remained. With in the first decade of the ratifying of the Act in Canada ( 1917) and the founding of Bird Protection Quebec, 10 sanctuaries were established in Quebec.

Federal Bird Sanctuaries can exist on federal, provincial, territorial or private land. In 1937 Bird Protection Quebec purchased  Île aux Perroquets  which is part of the federal Brador Bay Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBS) established in 1925. The site is an important Atlantic Puffin colony. Read about our other sanctuaries here.

10.  Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994 (MBCA)

The original treaty signed into law in 1917 has been amended in 1994 and 2005 and is referred to as the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994 (MBCA). Birds in Canada are protected under provincial and territorial statute in addition to the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994. Jurisdictions can make adjustments to the treaty to remove or add species. For example, although previously protected in Quebec, as of September 17th , the Mourning dove may be hunted in one zone in the southern part of the province for a 108 day season. According to the hunters lobbying for its inclusion, it is one of the most numerous game birds in North America and is quite tasty. I wonder if anyone ever said that about the passenger pigeon?