Bird City is a marvelous display of how man and nature can co-exist. This private bird sanctuary was even admired by none other than the father of American conservationism, Theodore Roosevelt, in his book Bird Reserves at the Mouth of the Mississippi River. We invite you to take a walk down the peaceful path to the Observation Tower. From the tower, you will be amazed how racks topped with fresh bamboo, cut from these very gardens annually in the fall, create a rookery for nesting egrets every spring.
E. A. McIlhenny prized rare plants and often enhanced the natural beauty of the gardens with them. As you walk down the path to the Observation Tower, be on the lookout for a strange looking tree to your right, it is called a Queer Tibetan Evergreen. It looks like a cypress tree and is one of the sole survivors of the Coal Age. A plant explorer found it in a remote Tibetan valley and shipped it to Louisiana.
Now, the Bird City story began when a gentleman connected with British government in India visited a then young E.A. McIlhenny’s parents. The man gave an account of a seventeenth-century Raja, who being very fond of birds had enormous flying cages built to keep his pets. When the Raja grew old, the cages were abandoned and fell apart: but though they were no longer caged, the birds remained, raising their young year after year at the same spot where they themselves had been raised.
Around 1895, young McIlhenny decided to build his own flying cage and chose “a small, wet area known as Willow Pond.” He built a dam around the place and increased its size to thirty-five acres. He then constructed an enormous flying cage of poultry netting over the water. He knew that egrets prefer to nest over water where alligators wound prevent any raccoons, possums or other predators from stealing young or eggs from the nests.
McIlhenny soon found eight young Snowy Egrets and hand raised them. They thrived and appeared content in the cage, and even seemed to enjoy McIlhenny himself.
In the fall, McIlhenny freed his birds for their migration south. Early in the following spring – as he had hoped – six of his original eight birds returned to the flying cage, where they paired off, and hatched eight more chicks. This happy pattern continued. Sixteen years later, in March of 1911, McIlhenny estimated that on hundred thousand birds had returned to nest in, what was now known as Bird City.
In this way, Bird City had almost singlehandedly revived south Louisiana’s egret population, which was plummeting due to feather-hunting to supply the burgeoning millinery trade which was so popular in the eastern U.S. and Europe at the time. Indeed, prior to the passage of the Lacey Act, which outlawed the killing of U.S. birds for their feathers, Theodore Roosevelt called Bird City “the most noteworthy reserve in the country.” McIlhenny’s efforts had demonstrated that individuals could seize the initiative and make enormous advances in wildlife conservation.
Today, Bird City is a refuge for many birds besides the Snowy Egret. Each spring brings a variety of neotropical songbirds to this protected area, along with returning Snowy, Great, and Cattle egrets, Tricolored, Green, and Little Blue Herons, Yellow-crowned Night-herons, Least Bitterns, and Anhinga. Other non-nesting wading bird such as White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbills, and Great Blue Herons also use Bird City on occasion for foraging and roosting.
Each fall, birds from the north arrive. Blue-winged teal arrive first, followed by many other species of ducks, coots, and others, which overwinter here along the Louisiana coast and points south. Thus, McIlhenny’s wildfowl refuge has become a seasonal preserve for many species migratory birds, and a year round refuge for many others.