WALNUT CREEK -- With so many bird enthusiasts in the Bay Area, it's hard to imagine that a little over a century ago women walked around with bird plumes, bird wings -- and sometimes entire birds -- on their hats.
When novelist Renée Thompson learned that in 1885 "plume hunters" slaughtered 5 million birds to feed the millinery industry, she turned to that subject for her second novel, "The Plume Hunter" (Torrey House Press, 2011).
Thompson will speak about her novel and the 19th century plume hunting trade on Feb. 7 at the Mount Diablo Audubon Society in Walnut Creek.
"People assume that most of the killing happened in the Florida Everglades," says Thompson, who lives in Placer County, "when actually some of the most prolific killing fields were in the American West."
The Plume Hunter takes readers to southeastern Oregon, where Fin McFaddin hunts birds to earn money for his widowed mother. The story also takes place in Portland and Berkeley, where Fin's childhood friend Aiden Elliott works to stop the practice. The national fight to end the slaughter of birds for fashion led to the growth of the National Audubon Society.
The fancier hats described in the book are hard to take. One hat is adorned with a whole pigeon, and another with the "head of a great-horned owl, which sported dark, vacant eyes." Maggie, Aiden's sister, buys a hat in a Portland millinery that "featured the bodies of six plump hummingbirds, their heads and throats a deep rose red, their bodies gray and green. Each bird was perched on a small stick at something of an angle, its wings neatly folded."
Several real-life activists show up in the book, such as Harriet Hemenway, a socialite who convinces women in Boston to join her in abandoning the fashion. Her group, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, inspired others across the country to do the same.
Here in the Bay Area, journalist Adeline Knapp joined the fight and asked John Muir to write a few lines against the practice.
"The milliners say that not in 20 years have birds been used for trimming as they are this year," Knapp told him in 1899.
Thompson describes the natural world with the love and attention of one who has spent a good deal of time in it. Her husband's first job as a wildlife biologist took them to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the setting for the hunting scenes in the story. Thompson writes that the Pacific Flyway has "birds spilling from the sky as thick as confetti, their bills as orange as marmalade, their wingtips dipped in charcoal." She bases an egret rookery slaughter scene on a paper written by William Finley, one of two wildlife photographers who inspired her fictional characters.
The Lacey Conservation Act of 1900 helped to slow plume hunting, and in 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt established the first national wildlife refuge to protect egrets from hunters. But the practice didn't really end until women stopped buying hats with feathers, says Thompson.
The Mount Diablo Audubon Society works to protect birds and foster their appreciation. Thompson will give her presentation at the Mount Diablo Audubon Society's monthly meeting, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 7 in the Camellia Room of the Gardens at Heather Farm, 1540 Marchbanks Drive, Walnut Creek. Guests are welcome.