In the late 19th century, it became all the rage for women’s hats to be trimmed with bird feathers. This fashion even extended to hummingbird skins, which flooded the British hat market from America.
As an example, in 1911, more than 41,000 hummingbird skins were sold at the London feather sale.
Not every woman was keen on the idea though, and a group of women from Boston decided to boycott the hats. They formed themselves into the Massachusetts Audubon Society and created quite a storm.
The Audubon Society is still going strong in the US where they fight for ecosystems for birds and other wildlife, regardless of head wear.
The society itself is named after a chap who painted pictures of American birds. James John Audubon wandered all over the States with only a gun and his easel, painting as he wandered. He didn’t have a lot of money so I guess the gun was so he could eat. His wife would tutor wealthy plantation owners in order to keep him in canvas and paint.
Audubon had nothing to do with the society but his widow tutored one of the founders, who had the unlikely name of George Bird Grinnell, and when it came time to name the new bird loving society, Grinnell picked Audubon.
Anyway, the whole feather thing came to a head when, in 1910, the New York State legislature enacted the Audubon Plumage Law, which prohibited the sale or possession of feathers from protected bird species.
Now, the thing about hummingbirds is that they are the tiniest birds in the world (the babies are the size of a penny) so it would take quite a few of them to trim a hat properly. They also fly very fast (25-30 miles per hour on average, 60 miles per hour when diving) so the person catching them needs to be quite handy with a net.
There are over 300 species of hummingbirds, which makes for some pretty colourful hats. There was probably a lot more before the hunting of them was stopped.
Leaving hummingbirds to one side, the Yupik people of Alaska used snow owls to make, what they call, fire bath hats. These were used to protect the heads of men and boys when they went into hot steam rooms. Women didn’t wear them because they weren’t allowed into the steam rooms.
The male Yupiks would be naked except for some sort of mouth covering and these fire bath hats. How very, very odd and extremely silly. And a bit hard on the snow owls. I have no idea what type of bird was used for the mouth covering.
Of course that sort of thing doesn’t happen in these more enlightened times…except that last November a bunch of Alaskans were exempted from a law forbidding the use of bird parts in ceremonial head dresses (and other clothes).
It seems that their cultural heritage is far more important than a few, endangered migratory birds. Or so United States Senator Lisa Murkowski reckons. (It’s the sort of thing that makes me wish there was reincarnation. Then you just know that Lisa is coming back as one of the birds.)
But, to get back to hummingbirds for a moment…there’s lots of myths surrounding them. According to the Mayans, hummingbirds were made from the leftover scraps after all the other birds were made. And a Puerto Rican myth tells of a young, star crossed pair (like Romeo and Juliet) who could only get together by him becoming a hummingbird and her a red flower (red is the hummingbird’s favourite colour).
But, let me finish with the story of the lovely Kathy Haney of Frankenmuth, Michigan. A hummingbird became trapped in her garage. The tiny bird was frantic and quickly exhausted itself. It came to rest on a wire near the ceiling of the garage. Kathy managed to carefully pry it’s claws off the wire and carried it out to a bird feeder where it had it’s fill of sugar water, before flying off happily.
Well done, Kathy…Sure beats making a hat out of it.