Birdwatching is a pastime considered, usually by nature lovers, as a recreation which involves watching, listening and studying birds in their natural habitat. Yet during the latter 1800s wildlife observation of another kind was being undertaken on the other side of the world.

In the streets of London women went undercover in a discrete type of birdwatching expedition. With their concealed notebooks and pencils they strolled through fashionable crowds and shopping thoroughfares, identifying the overwhelming variety of birds and plumage adorning the heads of city ladies.

One young investigator viewed the hats with a dispassionate forensic eye, studying "feather bedecked women" while jotting rapidly a list of species of over 174 different whole birds or their disembodied parts.

Quail and pheasant hat attachments. The feathers of blue jays and quails were popular, but most prized were the wings and tails of the ostrich, pheasant and egret. Photo/Supplied
Quail and pheasant hat attachments. The feathers of blue jays and quails were popular, but most prized were the wings and tails of the ostrich, pheasant and egret. Photo/Supplied

In Victorian and Edwardian times, women's hats were an essential part of fashion. Feathers with their dramatic colouring and texture made them a desired embellishment. Nineteenth century fashionistas flaunted not just feathers but also the tails, wings, and in some cases, eviscerated bodies of birds intricately arranged a-top hats, clothing and accessories.

Advertisement

The feathers of blue jays and quails were popular, but most prized were the wings and tails of the ostrich, pheasant and egret, coveted for their dramatic tufts.

While thousands of women across Europe were employed in the art of millinery, many more were occupied in feather workshops called "plumassiers", which prepared and traded feathers. Feather preparation was a recognised trade which involved extensive training. An "ostrich curler" alone required a three-year apprenticeship.

By the 1880s the latest fashions became more accessible and like many of Europe's fashionable society, New Zealand women were surrounded by the plume craze. Many establishments and millinery houses, such as "Modes de Paris" in Queen St, Auckland, advertised dyed and curled plumage along with ostrich tips amongst their millinery attire.

The Le Clerk ostrich feather fan. Photo/Supplied
The Le Clerk ostrich feather fan. Photo/Supplied

Relics of this nefarious period can be found at Whangārei Museum including such sought-after ostrich feathers, feathered fans and plumage adornments, some originating from one of Whangārei district's long forgotten industries.

Ostrich farming was first established locally shortly after Mr P B Le Clerc purchased 600 acres of land at Pataua around 1898. Here he bred and farmed birds specifically for their feathers. Le Clerc had ostriches shipped by boat from Auckland where he had initially become interested in the trade.

Due to the lucrative sale of plumage, Le Clerc considered farming ostriches a viable venture. With a pair of birds arriving on August 12, 1899, and two clutches of chicks raised per year, it wasn't long before the Pataua ostrich farm was well stocked.

Included in the Le Clerc household was governess Miss Gertrude Betts, who in her spare time cleaned, curled and dyed the harvested ostrich plumes ready for Auckland merchants. It is likely an ostrich feather fan in the Museum's collection, used by Alice Le Clerc in 1913 on her 21st birthday, is the result of Miss Betts' handiwork.

A Sears Roebuck & Co 1902 Catalogue in the Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North. Photo/Supplied
A Sears Roebuck & Co 1902 Catalogue in the Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North. Photo/Supplied

The Le Clerc ostrich farm flourished for some years but unfortunately, just as the birds were reaching their prime, fashions changed and ostrich plumes were no longer in vogue. Le Clerc gradually disposed of his birds and by 1911 the remaining few hens were sold to Boyd's Zoo in Royal Oak, Auckland.

Advertisement

The feather trade threatened the extinction of birds worldwide resulting in anti-plumage movements and with growing public outcry cruelty societies were formed.

Remnants of the plumage craze can be witnessed today in museums and through the determined efforts of a handful of women denouncing plumage fashion on London streets, the revitalisation of many species ensued.

■ Natalie Brookland is collection registrar, Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North.