Today marks a very important date in the RSPB's long history, because 100 years ago today, on 1 April 1922, the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act finally came into force. This marked the culmination of a long, and ultimately successful, campaign by a small group of ladies to end the senseless use of feathers in the fashion industry, especially in millinery (hat-making). It was the start of this campaign that led to the creation of the RSPB by these ladies several decades earlier, in 1889. You can read more about the fascinating early history of the RSPB, and how these ladies fought hard against the fashions of the day (and the suffragettes who promoted the wearing of feathers) in Tessa Boase's brilliant book Etta Lemon: the woman who saved the birds.
In recognition of this illustrious history, for today's collective nouns blog I'm taking a look at some of the species that featured heavily in the plumage trade, and therefore benefited from the implementation of the Plumage Act. As last week, therefore, we'll look at more than one species today. What makes today's blog different from most others in this series is that it also gives me the opportunity to pick a few species that do not (usually) occur at Minsmere - although ironically some have previously appeared on our daily sightings board on 1 April! The species I've chosen also happen to have some of the most unusual and exciting collective nouns.
When we talk about the Plumage Act, we usually mention two species that most obviously benefited here in the UK: little egret and great crested grebe. The former was a very rare visitor to the UK 100 years ago, but as numbers began to increase thanks to the enhanced protection brought about by the Plumage Act, they began to arrive more frequently. Eventually, 25 years ago they started nesting in the UK, and little egrets are now a common sight through most of southern England. They have subsequently been joined at British breeding birds by both great egret and cattle egret. However, I have not found a specific reference to a collective noun for egrets, so I leave that one until I focus on herons later in the year.
Great crested grebes were on the brink of extinction in the early 20th Century, but are now widespread on lakes, reservoirs and gravel pits throughout the UK. They do have a collective noun, and it is one of my favourites: a water-dance of grebes. This is an interesting choice though, as the courtship water-dance is only carried out in pairs, and flocks are more likely to be seen in winter. That said, I can't think of another group of birds that could be described as a water-dance, apart from grebes. In fact, elaborate as the great crested grebes' water-dance is, the gold medal for water-dancing must go to the rare hooded grebe of South America.
Great crested grebes doing their water dance, otherwise known as a weed dance, by Steve Everett
Another family of birds that suffered huge population declines as a result of the plumage trade was flamingos. It therefore doesn't come as a surprise to find out that the collective noun is a flamboyance of flamingos! What better term could be used for these bizarre long-legged, long-necked bright pink birds that look like they'd be more at home in cabaret that strutting around the saltpans, soda lakes and coastal shallows of the tropics. In contrast, a stand of flamingos sounds rather boring to me. Some of you will recall that 11 years ago we were graced by a flamingo called Fiona who had escaped from Marwell Zoo before going on a sightseeing tour of the UK.
Fiona on the Scrape in May 2011, by Jon Evans
Tessa Boase's book also makes frequent mention of hummingbirds, which were often used to adorn ladies' hats. Being so small and brightly coloured, many were displayed whole for greater effect. Having been lucky enough to water flocks of hummingbirds feeding in Costa Rica four years ago, I know where I'd rather see them! Again, the most familiar collective noun perfectly described the sight of a flock, and also goes a long way to explaining why they were so popular statement pieces on hats: a shimmer of hummingbirds. The alternative collective noun used is a charm of hummingbirds - a term also mentioned a few weeks ago when I featured goldfinches in these blogs. I guess it was considered good luck to have a hummingbird on your hat!
Green violetear hummingbird, photographed in Costa Rica
Many other exotic birds have an even longer history of persecution for fashion, though on a scale that probably had much less impact on populations that the "murderous millinery" trade (Etta Lemon's words). For example, the resplendent quetzal, a highlight of my trip to Costa Rica, and often described as the most beautiful bird in the world, was used extensively by the Maya and Aztec civilisations, while many New Guinea tribes used bird of paradise feathers in their head-dresses. The latter also proved very popular in Victorian hats for the flamboyant plumes. I haven't found any collective nouns for either of these groups, but I think that a shimmer or a flamboyance would be equally suitable for both.
There is one final group of birds whose features featured heavily in the plumage trade, leading to the creation of many farms dedicated to rearing them across South Africa: ostriches. As a species that naturally occurs in flocks and extended family groups, it's not surprising that there are a few collective nouns in use for ostriches. A herd of ostriches is particularly applicable to farmed flocks, while ostriches also live in prides, much like one of the their main predators, the African lion. I'm not really sure where the term a wobble of ostriches comes from, but I guess it may refer to the way the long ostrich plume that were so popular in hat wobble in the breeze.
The very fact that we are still able to see a water dance of grebes, flamboyance of flamingos, shimmer of hummingbirds or wobble of ostriches is thanks to the steadfast campaigning of ladies like Etta Lemon and Emily Williamson, so we're looking forward to unveiling of Emily Williamson's statue in her home town of Didsbury, Greater Manchester in 2023. Thank you ladies.
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