With the development of the shotgun came an increase in waterfowl hunting. By the 19th century market hunting with shotguns allowed the taking of dozens of geese and ducks, sometimes by mounting several guns on a boat or sinkbox. In one day hundreds of birds could be killed, then shipped to northern markets. Because of such indiscriminate hunting practices the early 20th century saw a steep decline in migratory waterfowl and the beginning of a robust conservation movement. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the Federal Duck Stamp Act of 1934 put an end to market hunting and the wholesale slaughter of waterfowl.
A couple of weeks ago I had an interesting conversation with a visitor to Ocracoke. Although market hunting was practiced on the Outer Banks, including Ocracoke, it was less economically feasible in isolated areas such as Ocracoke. Because of the greater distance to markets, it was more difficult to preserve the birds and more costly to ship them.
Some remote areas, I was told, resorted to plume hunting. In the early nineteenth century egret, heron, and other such fancy feathers were in demand by the military and makers of ladies' hats. Unlike whole birds, feathers could be stockpiled without preservatives, and shipped to markets at the convenience of the hunter. The bird carcasses were simply tossed aside once the feathers were harvested.
I was curious to know if any Ocracokers had ever been engaged as plume hunters. There has been little written about this almost forgotten enterprise, and I had never heard of any islanders who killed birds just for their feathers. I even asked Blanche about this. Blanche was born immediately after the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed, so the practice had been stopped for several years when she was growing up. Blanche told me she had never heard of anyone on Ocracoke engaged in market hunting for plumes. As one who loves wildlife and appreciates the natural world I am sure she is happy to know (or at least to believe) that plume hunting was never resorted to on the island.
Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of Project Nutmeg, and how Ocracoke almost became a site for testing nuclear weapons. You can read it here: http://www.villagecraftsmen.com/news042112.htm.