There is only sketchy evidence of the early populations of wading birds in the Everglades. A crude estimate for the 1870s, prior to any significant human intervention, is about 2.5 million birds. Plume hunting cut these numbers to perhaps a half a million by 1910. Snowy egret, reddish egret, and roseate spoonbill populations were decimated. Their decorative breeding feathers—plumes—were the most desired for the fashion market in women’s hats. Laws protecting these birds were partially effective, but it was the success of a public awareness campaign during the early years of that century, rendering the fashion socially unacceptable, that finally removed the economic incentive for plume hunters. Populations of most the these birds then rebounded during the next few decades.
Conditions favored the natural occurrence of the historic, predrainage rookeries at the southern end of the Everglades. The location provided many mangrove islands along the upper tidal creeks of the great mangrove forests. The location provided ready access to a greater range of hydroperiods and habitats than any other place in the Everglades.
The southern rookeries persisted through the initial drainage of the Everglades from 1910 into the 1940s. It was only after the 1950s with the implementation of the C&SF Project that their numbers plummeted. While the WCAs slowly began to support rookeries with the demise of the southern Everglades locations, conditions of the WCAs were thought to be unfavorable, an idea supported by the small, unstable rookeries.
It is hoped that Everglades restoration will foster major reestablishment of the southern Everglades rookeries. Hampering such resestablishment, however, is the fact that the historic mangrove islands that supported the southern Everglades rookeries have grown together—coalesced—for reasons not well understood but probably related to decreased flows from the freshwater Everglades.
Wading birds like roseate spoonbills and snowy egrets were hunted to near extinction in the early 1900’s for their feathers, or “plumes,” — a desirable fixture of women’s hat fashion. Photo by Bob Branham.