Plume Traders: How Barn Swallows Affected the Victorian Hat Industry

You know the saying…one thing always leads to another? Well ever since Ms. Jeannie wrote a  blog post about the history of  starlings she has been noticing the variety of birds that live  in and around her garden. Not that she ever didn’t notice the birds before – but now she REALLY notices them. Their colors, their size, their nesting habits, their songs…fascinating!  Her blog post also spawned similiar noticings and conversations among her friends, so much so that that they have sort of formed a little bird observation club of sorts. An occasional picture here, some observations there, a musing in-between.

One such friend,  just yesterday, brought a nest to Ms. Jeannie that needed to be removed from the underside of his portico. Here it is upon arrival at Ms. Jeannie’s…

Can you identify this nest?

After seeing a family of birds hatch, grow, and leave the nest,  and seeing no further activity over the next 2 weeks, he figured the nest was empty and ready for demolition. But to his surprise, upon careful removal, he discovered…

Three eggs!

This bird’s nest belongs to the barn swallow, which like the starling,  is one of the most common birds. So common in fact, that swallows can be found on every continent except for Antarctica.

Barn Swallow

Lying somewhere between the shades of cobalt blue and windsor blue,  barn swallows are made up of beautiful blue feathers along their back and wings with white to orange belly feathers and long pronged tail feathers (like those extra long meat forks!).

Back in the 1800’s, because of their bright colors, barn swallows were hunted exhaustively for use of their feathers in the millinary business. Ladies hats were big business back then, which led artisans to continuously try to one up each other in the creativity department. Seeking more and more exotic inspirations, birds proved just the ticket to create hats both remarkable in size and stature.  Other common bird feathers besides the swallows included egrets, bobwhites, herons and terns.

Here’s a millinery supply catalog page from 1901. Note the starling (whole bird) offered for sale in the bottom left corner.

Millinery Supply Catalog. 1901. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute.

Understandably, hats were an important staple in every women’s wardrobe. In an era where women dressed in similar colors and clothes, hats were a creative outlet for self expression.  Like the artists who created them, women continuously sought the most unusual arrangements. Dead animals included. By the 1870’s, whole birds were being perched on top of women’s heads with wings fanned out in all sorts of elaborate stylings.  Here are several feathered hat examples…

Antique Cabinet Photo from VintageAntiqueLane
Antique Photo of the Hatcher Sisters from phunctum
Victorian Lady Photograph from nancesnostalgia
1800’s Cabinet Card from SusieQsVintageShop
1870s Cabinet Card from HappySteiler

By the late 1890’s – early 1900’s, plume trading was a very lucrative business bringing at times $32.00 an ounce and esculating as high as $80.00 an ounce during peak trading.  And it wasn’t just for women’s fashion, either. Men’s fedoras were also being embellished with feathers as status symbols of economic prosperity.

Fortunately, thanks to an 1886 editorial printed in Forest & Stream Magazine by naturalist, George Bird Grinell,  the devasting effects plume trading was having on barn swallows and other birds was brought to light for the American public.

George Bird Grinell (1849-1938)

It seems women really hadn’t thought through this whole bird business. Being blinded simply by the sheer beauty of the fashion, they forgot to consider where these feathers came from, how the birds were treated and why they were winding up on their heads.   Thanks to the editorial though, women all over New York City roused to the cause. Through boycotts and informational tea parties, word spread  and  awareness eventually led to the founding of the National Audubon Society in 1905. Today the Audubon Society  is still dedicated to the conservation of birds, wildlife and healthy ecosystems. Fantastic!

Ms. Jeannie is thankful that people were watching out for the barn swallows a hundred years ago. Without their valiant efforts, she might not get to enjoy them in her neighborhood now. It’s lovely to see bright flashes of blue zip through the air before you and always so unexpected. Every time, she sees one – it is like the first time. A little extra thrill in her day!

Barn swallows have been a source of inspiration for many areas of art, not just the hat industry. Check out the following swallow themed items, Ms. Jeannie found on Etsy. These are some of her favorites…

Painterly Barn Swallow by Claire Hartman
Barn Swallows Cuff by UniqueArtPendants
Swallow Mini Bowls by AmandaMBarr
Bird Linocut Cards by SwallowNestArtStudio
Bird Stamp Ring by ardent1
Lampworked Glass Barn Swallow Necklace by amnflamework
Be Still and Know Art Print by LisaMDSkinnerArt

If you notice barn swallows in your area, snap a photo and send it to Ms. Jeannie! Please include your location so she can  share your sightings with everyone.

Have a birdy day!


A reader from the Palm Beach Gardens area of Florida wrote in about this phenomena that occurs in his neck of the woods…

Something confusing you would be interested in. About every so often, at lest once a month, A huge , I mean huge, flock of birds of all varieties gather on the lake and ring the shore. It consists of birds from pelicans to herons to cranes, etc. As if they are holding a convention. I’ve tried to research this phenomenon to no avail. Any ideas?

Ms. Jeannie is on the case to see what sort of gathering this might be. She’ll keep you updated on what she finds, but in the meantime, if you can help solve this mystery, please share!


From Shakespeare To Central Park – The Flight of the Starlings

A family of european singers has moved in with Ms. Jeannie!

Ms. Jeannie’s new roommates – the European starlings.

Tucked into the side porch – they chose to reside in a rotted out hole on the underside of the roof eave. Ms. Jeannie didn’t even know there was a vacancy there until she heard these vocalists warming up one morning.  It started with two of them, but soon after came three babies chirp, chirp, chirping.

All black with bright yellow beaks and iridescent feathers, Ms. Jeannie identified these singers as European starlings with her handy bird book.

European Starling

They are one of the most common birds found in the US, with over 200 million of them occupying all 50 states.

Interestingly enough, starlings were first introduced to America by Eugene Scheifflin in 1890. Eugene, a lover of all things Shakespeare, wanted to bring all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to America.  The starling is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1:

“I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion. “

Eugene released all the birds in Central Park in 1890, but only the starlings survived.  Wondrously 30 pairs of starlings turned into 200 million just a hundred years later. Simply amazing!

If you want to read more about Eugene, a great book about his life and membership with the American Acclimatization Society is detailed in Tinkering With Eden: A Natural History of Exotic Species in America by Kim Todd.

Tinkering with Eden by Kim Todd

A fascinating documentary was also done by Penny Lane about Eugene and his flight of fancy, called The Commoners.  Here’s a clip from youtube…

Some people think that starlings are irritating because they are so vocal and can mimic many different types of birds. But Ms. Jeannie loves her new roommates. They can be destructive in the garden- pulling up newly planted seeds, but luckily Ms. Jeannie’s garden has remained untampered with so far.

The average lifespan of a european starling is 5-7 years but the oldest one on record in the US was 15 years old and in the UK, 22 years old. In general, they can lay up to 10 eggs a year.  The babies get kicked out of the nest when the mom deems it appropriate so that they can learn to fly, forage and protect themselves on the ground for up to 5 days before they fly off.

Both parents teach the babies how to survive during this time. Not all babies make it though. Since they can’t fly yet when they are kicked out of the nest they become vulnerable to the initial fall, predators like snakes, house cats, etc or they succumb to dehydration or malnurishment. It is definitely tough to be a baby bird. Knowing this information now, it seems EXTRAordinary that birds ever even make it to adulthood.

Once starlings reach maturity, they are acrobatic flyers, reaching speeds up to 48 miles an hour. They can be aggressively territorial and dive bomb other birds if they feel threatened.

Male starlings choose the nesting sites and then go in search of a mate. The male starlings are also the primary nest builders, but the females like to come in at the end of construction and look the nest over before settling in. The females will even remove certain types of nesting materials if they don’t suit!

The poet, Mary Oliver, wrote this beautiful poem called Starlings in Winter…

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

Ms. Jeannie found some gorgeous starling art on Etsy. Take a look…

Starling Bird Painting by Frances Marin
Wire Bird Sculpture by wireanimals
Flying Starling Print by KSGtextileart
Starling Oil Painting from tintabernacle
Starling Greeting Card by thenothcountrygirl

Starlings are cavity nesters. If you want to attract some starlings in your yard, Twig & Timber offers several styles that starlings would love…

Modern Birdhouse by twigandtimber
Craftsmen Birdhouse by twigandtimber
The Camera Shutter Birdhouse by twigandtimber

Or if you want to start identifying the birds in your yard, these items might be helpful…

Vintage Audubon Bird Caller from VintageHoneyBunny
Vintage Book of Songbirds from Fishraven
Vintage Summit Binoculars from MysticLily
Birding Journal by QuailLanePress

If you have any starling pictures from your yard, send them in. Ms. Jeannie would love to see! Until then…happy birding!