Bird City is a private wildfowl refuge or bird sanctuary located in Jungle Gardens, on Avery Island. It was founded by Tabasco sauce heir and conservationist Edward Avery McIlhenny. McIlhenny established the refuge around 1895 on his approximately 175-acre estate. By the late 19th century, plume hunters had nearly wiped out the snowy egret population of the United States in pursuit of the bird’s delicate feathers, which were commonly used by milliners to adorn ladies’ hats. Alarmed by this trend, McIlhenny searched and located several surviving egrets, which he took back to his estate on Avery Island. There he turned the birds loose in a type of aviary he called a flying cage, where the birds soon adapted to their new surroundings. In the fall McIlhenny released the birds to migrate south for the winter. As he had hoped, the birds returned to the pond in Jungle Gardens the following spring, bringing with them even more snowy egrets. By 1911 the refuge served as the nesting grounds for thousands of egrets and this pattern continues today.
Because of its early founding and example to others, Theodore Roosevelt, father of American conservationism, once referred to Bird City as the most noteworthy reserve in the country. Man-made elevated platforms are provided and in early January of each year are refurbished with new dried bamboo stems. It seems these platforms are perfect nesting sites for three species of herons, namely Great Egrets, the largest of the three, followed by Snowy Egrets, and then the smallest, Cattle Egrets. The birds begin arriving as early as late January to select a nesting site on the platforms. This activity is 4 to 5 weeks earlier that any similar activity at natural rookeries in the area. Because of the early nesting, the breeding birds in Bird City fledge their young as early as late June. By July, with nesting complete, and the young dispersing across Avery Island, Bird City platforms are often empty once more until January of the next year. When speaking to visitors in Jungle Gardens I always like to emphasize that what they are seeing has been happening now for 126 years. Bird City is simply an amazing spectacle to witness.
Photos provided by Pam McIlhenny (https://www.pamandedmundmcilhenny.com)