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Great Aigrettes-How Adornable

March 15, 2010

I’m not stylish, nor do I profess to have any secrets of courtship. My plan was always to show up less than ten minutes late, try not to look like a slob and if possible, smell more like a fir forest than a cypress swamp. As far as courtship displays, I used a hair dryer and stole my sister’s Aquanet. I drove a shiny, fire engine red Toyota Corolla and regardless of the temperature, wore an awesome leather jacket made from what I told myself was a delicious cow. Let’s assume I was a babe magnet.

Birds have it a bit easier. Many of them are genetically pre-programmed to develop colorfully enhanced lores, bills and legs, as well as flashy breeding plumes during courtship that make them desirable to the opposite sex. Take for example the Great Egret (Ardea alba). The origin of the name egret comes from the French word aigrette (ay-gret) which in turn has Germanic origins and referred to herons – relatives of the egret in the family Ardeidae.

Today the word aigrette refers to the unique breeding plumes many birds develop on their head, neck and back which they use during courtship displays. One common nestside exhibition includes a male stretching its neck and head forward and with neck aigrettes erect and back feathers splayed out, snaps its bill loudly. Males will also compete for the attention of a female by stabbing at a competitor with their bill and displaying their aigrettes.

Humans have always used feathers as adornments but the plumage craze of the late 19th and early 20th century saw men and women decorating hats and clothing with the specialized aigrettes from a variety of birds, egrets included. Whether changing fashions, declining bird populations or newly enacted laws, by the second decade of the 20th century, the plumage trade had nearly vanished. Bird populations suffered severe declines, but aigrettes were once again spotted more commonly on living birds rather than atop the heads of misguided style enthusiasts.

I haven’t worn the leather jacket in years. My hair molted and I unplugged the blow dryer long ago. Like the use of aigrettes in hats, CFCs in hair spray was not good for the environment. My care and understanding of environmental issues has improved but my style probably hasn’t. I can only hope my smell has.

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