Avery Island’s Bird City in Jungle Gardens

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)

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

Great Egrets

Cattle Egrets

Boat House Iris returns to Jungle Gardens

After nearly 50 years an Iris from the Gardens comes home!

Patrick Fett from north-central Louisiana has brought a wonderful gift to Jungle Gardens. As the story goes, Patrick was a student at USL (now UL Lafayette) in the early 1970s. While on a field trip to Jungle Gardens with Horticulture professor Ellis Fletcher, he was given a small rhizome of a beautiful pinkish red Iris that was growing in abundance near the famous Ward Boat House.

Cultivating Louisiana Irises became one of Patrick’s many passions. He has developed a splendid collection of native species and their cultivars at his home. Earlier this year (2022) he reached out to me and told me the story behind the “Boat House” Iris that he has been growing for nearly 50 years. When I told him that it no longer grew near the Boat House nor anywhere else in Jungle Gardens, he was determined to bring some back to the Island.

Two weeks ago he visited and brought a large container with over 24 plants, many of which were in bud and ready to flower. There are a sufficient number of plants in the container so that we will be able to place several small colonies in different sites in the Gardens and retain one in the container for continued growth.


What began 3 years ago as just an idea — to make a hiking trail through the wooded area of the “Old Nursery” in Jungle Gardens on Avery Island — saw some serious advancement last summer. Lisa Osborn, Herbert Leavitt, and I marked the proposed path of this trail by walking through the forested area of the Jungle Gardens’ Old Nursery (where E. A. McIlhenny grew plants for wholesale). We chose a potential route beginning at the edge of the woods not far from the Jungle Gardens parking lot and walked from that point all the way to the opposite forest edge ending at the Yellow Timber Bamboo.

Bernard Patout, head grounds keeper for Avery Island, then came to our assistance with his heavy equipment. He followed our yellow flagging and cut a spectacular serpentine trail through the forest. The trail is particularly attractive because it winds left and right, up and down, so that at any one point you cannot see the path behind you or in front of you.

This route eventually met and crossed a deep ravine (gully), which is also a wonderful sight to see. On March 12th and 13th, 2020, the Avery Island work force built a bridge over this ravine and it, too, is an amazing accomplishment. The bridge is both wide and strong enough so that service vehicles will be able to use it for trail maintenance.

This hiking trail will be marked and open to the pubic very soon.

The new hiking trail through the old nursery.


Its not every day that you discover a garden hidden from view for over 70 years.

A “new” OLD CAMELLIA GARDEN which was discovered last year, hidden in plain sight (almost) in Jungle Gardens. Today, January 10th, it has been revealed for all to see.
It was late in the blooming season of last year when we first noticed a few camellias inside a thick bamboo grove. At that time, a casual inspection of the plants nearest to the road suggested there might be about a half dozen large camellias. The bamboo was so thick that venturing far into the grove was not possible. Essentially nothing more was visible beyond the first few camellias due to the density of the bamboo.

Last week Bernard Patout and his team cleared the bamboo from the entire area where the camellias are growing. What materialized was not just a handful of camellias but no less than 43 camellias, planted in rows covering a substantial area. Some of these camellias are over 25 feet tall, no doubt because they struggled to reach the sun while competing with bamboo. It seems this grove of camellias was consumed by the adjacent bamboo during the last 70+ years and essentially vanished right before our eyes.

This is an exciting discovery because these camellias are some of the originals planted in the gardens over 70 years ago and that they have not been seen nor studied since that time. It is even possible that this group many contain some of the rarest camellias, known to have been in Jungle Gardens but never found!

It will be a fascinating group of plants for camellia enthusiast to study and identify. I tried photographing some of the flowers but many are so high up in the tall trees that my camera lens would not permit decent photos.

Now with the bamboo in its proper place these newly discovered camellias will be able to thrive and flourish. The plants looks surprisingly good and all of them have great color and appear to be very healthy. This newly discovered grove of Camellias is located not far from the Buddha parking circle as indicated on the map.

The Ivory Billed Woodpeckers of Avery Island

Ivory Billed Woodpecker (male)

There is likely no other native bird in North America that remains so fascinating, so mesmerizing, as the Ivory Billed Woodpecker (IBW). To many it is an almost magical bird. A bird so bewitching that even a reported 2005 sighting by experienced ornithologists eludes verification. Considered extinct by many and extant by others, the IBW captivates the imagination of many in the birding world. The only treatise of the species, The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker by James Tanner (1942), was the culmination of Tanner’s research and observations of IBWs in northern Louisiana in the 1930s. Yet since the reported sighting in 2005 no fewer than a dozen new books have been written about this hypnotic bird.

We knew that the IBW had been observed in the past on Avery Island and that E. A. McIlhenny wrote about these sightings on several occasions. There are references in James Tanners book “The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker” (1942) to both Avery Island and McIlhenny.

What we did not know until very recently is that two IBW specimens from Avery Island (male and female) exist in the collection of Cornell University in Ithaca NY. The specimens were brought to our attention by a Louisiana native, Matt Courtman, an IBW researcher who, while visiting Cornell, made the discovery. The two specimens are spectacular, some of the best IBW’s Matt has ever seen. Matt has had a long fascination with IBWs and will provide more information about the provenance of those two specimens. Currently all that is known is that the birds were collected by McIlhenny on April 7, 1895.

McIlhenny apparently closely watched the Avery Island IBWs throughout the 1890s. I have found his detailed accounts of nesting activities observed between 1892 and 1894. He reported on several active nests he monitored in great detail in the “Avery Swamp.” During that time he recorded the number of eggs laid, how many eggs per nest, and how many young per nest. There is no doubt he spent a considerable amount of time observing the nesting habits of Avery Island IBW pairs, commenting on them excavating nest cavities.

The common Pileated Woodpecker is regularly confused with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (IBW). The average non-birdwatching individual often assumes that just about any large black-and-white woodpecker could be or is an Ivory-billed.

If one brings up the subject of the IBW, a common response is “they are common around here today”. So without much thought many people simply assume the two birds are one and the same. This widespread inability to distinguish the Pileated Woodpecker from the IBW only serves to make skeptics out of those most able to distinguish between the two species.


Pileated above, Ivory Billed Below
McIlhenny’s letter to James Tanner.
Tanner’s reply to McIlhenny.
Avery Island Ivory Billed Woodpecker specimens at Cornell Univ.
Avery Island specimens, just look at the size of their beaks!
Female Ivory Billed lower specimen, Male Ivory Billed upper specimen.