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February 28: When Birds Were Hats

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Hats can serve a functional purpose, protecting us from the sun and the cold. They can also make a bold fashion statement. The early Twentieth Century was the heyday of hat design. Women’s hats became large and extravagant. There were hats for every possible occasion including walking, riding, morning wear, evening wear, and even hats to wear at home. Hats that incorporated feathers and even whole birds became popular. This created a tremendous demand for feathers and birds. Thousands of snow egrets, owls, herons, and other exotic birds were slaughtered in the name of fashion.

On this date in 1913, the National Association of Audubon Societies expressed concern about the wholesale destruction. The Audubon Society noted that several states had already passed laws prohibiting the sale of feathers and birds. A delegation was sent to Washington to ask that Congress extend the prohibition to the entire country.

North Dakota is home to many of the birds that were coveted by the fashion industry. Farmers, ranchers, and sportsmen understood the important role the birds played in both the economy and ecology of the state. In addition to helping maintain a healthy environment, sporting birds attract hunters to the state. These groups backed efforts to rein in the fashion industry’s appetite for birds.

Today many of North Dakota’s birds are protected. Both the bald eagle and the golden eagle are protected under Federal law. North Dakota does not have a state endangered species law, but the state does have a wildlife action plan to address concerns about bird populations. There are several species that are considered the highest conservation priority, including the greater sage grouse, the American bittern, and the lark bunting.

Some species of birds have made a comeback, but they were not all so fortunate. The passenger pigeon was especially easy to shoot and net since they flew in enormous flocks that were miles wide. In 1914, the last known passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo. In 1947, environmentalist Aldo Leopold wrote, “Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons; trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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