Harry Mount

New squawk

Harry Mount on the return of the egret and other beautiful birds to the Manhattan skies

While Rudy Giuliani’s zero tolerance policy took care of crime, the Audubon Society, America’s RSPB, which celebrates its centenary this year, has been taking care of the birds. After decades when the only bird life that flourished in Manhattan was of the Bianca Jagger/Jerry Hall variety — and even they came close to starvation — New York has become one of the greatest bird-watching sites in the world.

Within sight of the Empire State Building you can see 500-strong flocks of great egrets, snowy egrets, glossy ibises, cormorants and night herons, emigrés from southern climates nesting in colonies on the islands of New York harbour. For most of the 20th century, they abandoned the city, flushed out by the effluent and smoke of the factories of Queens and New Jersey. Now, with the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the efforts of the New York City chapter of the Audubon Society, they are flourishing within the shadow of the Rockefeller oil refineries in Queens, unfazed by the big metal birds flying out from nearby La Guardia airport.

The Audubon Society is named after the great American naturalist, John James Audubon (1785–1851), the Louisiana son of a Spanish Creole mother and a French naval officer. Audubon devoted his life to drawing birds; his triumph was the publication of Birds of America (1838), with its 1,055 images of all the birds in the country.

In 1905, when the society was founded, rich New York women had taken to wearing the egret’s bright white lacy feathers — and sometimes whole egrets — in their hats. New York’s egrets were hunted to extinction; their feathers had become worth double their weight in gold. By 1910 the society had successfully lobbied for the passing of the Audubon Plumage Law and egrets were safe from the whims of fashionable ladies for ever.

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