The Price of a Feather

More than a century ago, the discovery of a hidden bird refuge in the Everglades led down a path of greed, vanity, and murder. And that’s just the beginning of the story.

In the fall of 1889, George Elliott Cuthbert was steering his canoe along a lake edge deep in Florida’s Great Mangrove Swamp when he saw a white feather floating on a current. A fisherman and ship captain, he had been canvassing the area for days, watching birds fly between their foraging grounds and a mysterious central locale, toting fish or frogs to feed their nestlings. But where was the hub? Rumors from Seminole traders had enticed him to sail 80 miles from his home on Marco Island on the Gulf Coast, then hack, wade, and drag a canoe through the mangrove tangle for days to reach this remote chain of lakes. Assailed by mosquitoes and thick-tongued from a dwindling supply of fresh water, he almost gave up. Until he saw the feather.

Cuthbert bushwhacked in the direction of the current, which opened to a vast lake. Far ahead, he saw what he came for—“a flower, a beautiful white blossom,” as he told his children. It was a 2-acre islet of mangroves, so thickly dotted with nesting birds and newborns—thousands of great and snowy egrets, ibises, wood storks, tricolored herons, and the odd, circus-colored roseate spoonbill—that it bloomed. He moored his craft on the rookery and hid among the branches.

Then he raised his rifle and shot the adults at close range. He scalped a tuft of feathers off each of their backs. The chicks were left alone, to starve.

Cuthbert was chiefly after the egrets’ nuptial head plumage, called aigrettes in the fashion press. At the turn of the century, these unique, otherworldly feathers, which grow only during the nesting season, were worth $32 an ounce—double the price of gold. Aigrettes were the most prized feather in the plume trade: the massive market in wild bird plumage that adorned women’s hats. Aigrettes’ loosely spaced barbs render them so filmy that they practically levitate, lending grace to the movements of the woman underneath. This feather’s popularity meant that all of the more accessible egret rookeries had long been depleted. The islet that Cuthbert found was probably the last place in Florida where a super colony of egrets still thrived.

One of Cuthbert’s two trips to the rookery netted him $1,800—more than $50,000 in today’s dollars. With the earnings, he purchased half of Marco Island, a schooner, and a houseful of fine furniture. Then Cuthbert gave up plume hunting to farm his land. Cuthbert’s half of the island was sold long ago, and it’s now covered with condos and high-rise resorts and worth almost $5 billion.

George Elliott Cuthbert took plenty away from this secret place, but he gave it two things: its name and its vigorous but short-lived fame. In the decades after Cuthbert’s discovery, this isolated thumbprint of land that is now part of Everglades National Park was sought out, fought over, fought for, lionized, and then forgotten. Today, few people know or care about Cuthbert Rookery. Yet even after a century of protection, its future is still precarious. The rookery remains an enduring symbol of the high-stakes struggle to protect the Everglades from a host of threats.

“Cuthbert Rookery was like finding the lost city of gold,” says Sonny Bass, who was the park’s senior wildlife biologist for 36 years. Its value is rooted in its location. The islet sits along the brackish zone where the saltwater of Florida Bay meets Everglades freshwater flowing from the north. This estuary, historically one of the world’s ecologically richest, yields a bounty of the small fish that wading birds eat. An island in that estuary, Cuthbert Rookery has a natural moat that has kept the birds safe from critters like raccoons, but other predators were a little more resourceful.

“Cuthbert kept his secret for a long time,” says Bass. “But eventually, other hunters began following him.” The refuge would regain birds after each gunning, only to be “shot out” again and again. “You coulda walked right around the ruke-ry on them birds’ bodies,” reported one local witness after a 1904 cleanout. “Between four and five hundred of ’em.” Once, two hunting parties reportedly turned their rifles on one another, sinking the boats and forcing a wretched slog back to camp through the crocodile-infested thicket.