CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

PAUL KROEGEL AND THE FEATHER WARS OF FLORIDA

I

Starting in March 1903 President Roosevelt engaged in a Herculean effort to save the bird rookeries of Florida. Playing the role of a modern-day Noah, the committed Audubonist insisted that every bird species in Florida was a world unto itself, a masterpiece of Darwinian evolution. And these birds needed habitats to survive. Even though the term “biodiversity” would not be coined until about 1985, Roosevelt had an intuitive grasp of the concept. He worried that for some species in Florida—a hot spot for biodiversity—the death rate was far exceeding the birthrate, threatening them with extinction. The initial showdown over the future of Florida’s wildlife took place at Pelican Island, a teardrop-shaped Atlantic Coast islet situated three nautical miles from the hamlet of Sebastian. The island was home to the last breeding colony of brown pelicans on the east coast of Florida. The Indian River Lagoon basin, of which Pelican Island was a part, contained some 4,300 species of plants and animals—more species than any other estuary in the United States—including 685 types of fish and 370 bird species.1

Of all the Florida avians, it seemed that the brown pelican was Roosevelt’s personal favorite. These pelicans were to him like Keats’s nightingale or Wordsworth’s cuckoo. The brown pelicans were the finest fishermen Roosevelt knew—a far cry better than any human. That pelicans were such superb natural fishermen, however, may have enthralled the president, but it irritated the dickens out of rural Floridians. Since brown pelicans had an almost insatiable appetite for scooping up finned prey, Florida fishermen saw these birds as unwelcome competition, a hindrance to their livelihood, like woodpeckers devouring corn or mockingbirds incessantly pecking at grapevines. The mere sight of brown pelicans—flying over the low gray river with pouches chock-full of fish to feed their nestlings—made fishermen reach for a gun. The pelicans’ fishing grounds were supposed to be humans’ fishing grounds. Therefore, the pelicans had to be eradicated. What locusts were to a Nebraskan farmer or gutter rats to a Brooklyn merchant, brown pelicans were to Florida’s commercial fishermen. But to Roosevelt, pelicans were a marvelous example of Darwin’s evolutionary theory at work, and he wanted them protected. Unlike most birds, pelicans weren’t masters of evasion; they actually liked people. Unfortunately, that made them even more vulnerable to being slaughtered for their quills, as mounts, for their eggs, and even for target practice. How they had survived so long, given their friendliness, intrigued Roosevelt.

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Regularly Roosevelt would row around Long Island Sound on bird-watching adventures. He believed it was a civic responsibility to know the wildlife species that lived in your own backyard.

T.R. as a rower. (Courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library)

While stationed in Tampa Bay during the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt had studied the brown pelicans’ daily routines with an artist’s eye for nuance. Often they glided low, within range of a pistol or slingshot, among swarms of gnats (locally known as sand flies) whose buzz may have been inaudible to humans but which nevertheless caused a man to itch. Sometimes the pelicans followed porpoises, which served as their advance agents for detecting schools of fish. Roosevelt had marveled at how good-humored pelicans could be, allowing noisy gulls to use their elongated heads as a resting spot.2 They built frail twig nests for roosts, and each pelican parent would take a turn sitting on the eggs and then dutifully standing guard, in shifts. They were a highly responsible bird species in this regard, rare and remarkable. And pelicans were just one of Florida’s wild creatures Roosevelt admired. Someday he hoped his grandchildren would see loggerhead turtles laying eggs on a Florida beach and manatees patrolling the crystal waters of a spring-fed river. To Roosevelt there was no more nutritive truth than the order of the Abrahamic God four days after Genesis to “let the waters teem with countless living creatures, and let birds fly over the land across the vault of heaven.”

Roosevelt first learned about the birds of Pelican Island from the published field notes of Dr. Henry Bryant (of the Boston Society of Natural History), recorded in 1859. Dr. Bryant, in his capacity as a professional ornithologist, scientifically recorded the scores of brown pelicans and other waterbirds he encountered on fantastically misshapen clumps of mangrove in the Indian River Lagoon. “The most extensive breeding place was on a small island called Pelican Island, about twenty miles north of Fort Capron,” Bryant wrote in his diary. “The nests here were placed on the tops of mangrove trees, which were about the size and shape of large apple trees. Breeding in company with the pelicans were thousands of herons, Peale’s egret, the rufous egret and little white egret, with a few pairs of the great blue heron and roseate spoonbills; and immense numbers of man-o-war birds and white ibises were congregated upon the island.”3 Bryant also reported that a feather hunter had recently killed sixty roseate spoonbills on Pelican Island in a single day.

The word soon spread in ornithologist circles that Pelican Island was an amazing field laboratory; there was little need to venture down to Ecuador or British Honduras. In 1879 Dr. James Henshall, following in Bryant’s footsteps, visited the Indian River Lagoon region on a collection trip, expecting the best. Traversing trails that became a trough of swamp water to get to Pelican Island, Henshall was astounded by what he encountered: the mythical rookery was now a dead zone. “The mangroves and water oaks of this island have all been killed by the excrement of the pelicans which breed here,” Henshall wrote in his journal. “This guano, which lies several inches deep on the ground, is utilized by the settlers as an efficient fertilizer. At a distance, the dead trees and bushes and ground seemed covered with frost or snow, and thousands of brown pelicans were seen flying and swimming around or perched upon the dead branches. As we passed, we saw a party of northern tourists at the island, shooting down the harmless birds by scores through mere wantonness. As volley after volley came booming over the water, we felt quite disgusted at the useless slaughter, and bore away as soon as possible and entered the Narrows.” 4

Now, more than twenty years after Henshall’s disturbing report, Roosevelt was in a position to help save this little piece of Eden from destruction. As an honorary officer of the Florida Audubon Society and a former governor of New York who had helped promote the Lacey Act, he was well acquainted with the so-called Feather Wars going on in the state between bird protectionists and hunters. Now, with the the bully pulpit at his disposal, Roosevelt was finally going to put the plumers and eggers out of business once and for all. The main thrust of his policy was to strengthen the hand of the U.S. Biological Survey in Florida, perhaps having it oversee islets like Pelican Island. A new generation of Darwinists could use Florida as an evolutionary laboratory where plants might offer medical cures and breeding habits of birds could be carefully studied. But even if Roosevelt was able to create federal bird reservations on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Florida, he would need wardens to protect them. Luckily, the ideal wildlife warden was already living in Sebastian, overlooking Pelican Island: Paul Kroegel, known locally as the “Audubon of the Indian River.” Roosevelt, it turned out, was Kroegel’s conservationist hero. Essentially, Kroegel became the archetype of the frontline law enforcement wardens Roosevelt wanted hired all over America to help protect birdlife. Therefore, Kroegel’s story illustrates a new trend in the wildlife protection movement that Roosevelt initiated in the hope of restoring bird species: federal wildlife protection officers.

II

Paul Kroegel—the man who would become Roosevelt’s first wildlife warden—was born in Chemnitz, Germany, on January 9, 1864. When he was three or four years old he became enamored of the gangly white storks (just as T.R. had been enamored of those in Dresden in 1869, when he “drew” Darwin’s theory with himself as a stork.) The sight of a stork nesting on a chimney was considered a good omen in both Chemnitz and Dresden. Also, because these migratory birds often arrived in Germany around Easter, the coming of the stork was, to northern Europeans of Teutonic ancestry, a symbol of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not only did German children like Paul Kroegel refrain from killing white storks; they thought of storks as holy birds imbued with eternal nobility. Germans, of course, weren’t the only Europeans to admire storks. According to ancient Greek mythology, a white stork was a fertility symbol. If a woman made direct eye contact with such a stork, she could receive the blessing of a newborn child. In Scandinavia white storks were believed to find human children (“stork children”) living in marshes or caves, to clutch them with their red claws, and to deliver them to the doorstep of pregnant women.5 In northern Germany storks were also thought to bring babies.6

This reverential attitude toward the long-legged birds was reinforced in young Kroegel by Hans Christian Andersen’s classic children’s story “The Storks.” Andersen, a Dane, was a veritable storehouse of stork mythology. Danish servants, for example, believed that if people saw a stork fly into town as spring approached they would soon move residences; if they saw a stork standing, they’d retain their current employment.7 When Andersen wrote “The Storks” in 1838, the rooftops of northern Europe provided nesting areas for them. In Andersen’s fairy tale, children who taunted a maimed stork were punished: a stork delivered a dead baby brother or sister in its long beak instead of a live baby. To a child of Kroegel’s generation, impressed by Andersen’s stories, hurting a stork would be akin to molesting the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy.8

On a cold Christmas Eve in 1870, when Paul Kroegel was six years old, his mother and an infant sister died during childbirth. His distraught father, Gottlob, took Paul and his two-year-old brother, Arthur, and immigrated to the United States the next year. They endured a brutal twelve-day voyage aboard the freighter S.S. Canada across the temptuous Atlantic. Arriving in New York, the Kroegels were deloused and given clean clothes. Paul was immediately homesick for Andersen’s storks: all of the tenement roofs in New York were populated by rat nests. After about four years on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, working in the meat business and as a jack-of-all-trades, Gottlob packed up his boys once again and first moved to Chicago and then eventually settle in Florida under the Homestead Act. Gottlob realized that Florida was his best chance of pursuing his idea of the American dream and providing a fine, healthy life for his boys.9 Lured by stories of eternal sunshine and citrus groves finer than those along the Nile River, Gottlob became a pioneer and homesteaded with Paul in the low-lying central coast of Florida between the Saint Sebastian and Indian rivers (today it is known as Indian River County).*10 After a brief stay in Fernandina, Florida, Gottlob bought a small skiff to sail the 200 miles of the Saint Johns River. But, encountering a headwind, he and Paul rowed most of the way. They had their boat and supplies hauled six miles on a mule-drawn tram to the shores of the Indian River. From there, they sailed another sixty-five miles south until they came upon a high promontory along the shoreline and decided to stay. They built a palm frond home on top of Barker’s Bluff, an old Ais Indian mound looking across the lagoon at Pelican Island. (Later that year a summer gale blew the house away, so they constructed a sturdier New England–style cottage, less vulnerable to tropical storms.)

When the Kroegels arrived in 1881, Florida was, as the novelist Wallace Stegner once wrote, a violent dreamland of “six-shooter freedom and orange-grove bliss,” a forlorn place where the soil was so luxuriant everything grew wild and the trees didn’t drop their leaves in winter.11 The Indian River region could be bleak, intimidating, and even lethal. But the lure of sunshine meant that every year more and more homesteaders arrived, using machetes to cut away palm sabal and crazy weeds to plant crops. Clearly there was something miraculous about Florida soil if—and only if—you could survive the coral snakes, diamondbacks, mosquito hordes, tropical storms, stark loneliness, and occasional frosts. Basically Florida in 1881 was like the Wild West—a frontier wilderness. Most villages like Sebastian didn’t even have a wooden water tank or a one-room schoolhouse to call their own.

By the time Paul Kroegel was a teenager, his nickname around Sebastian was “Pelican Watcher.” Just above the tide line of Pelican Island, he enjoyed watching these comical birds cavort with one another.12 (The brown pelicans reportedly did not share Pelican Island with other species from about 1882 to about 1939.) Protecting pelicans became part of his daily routine in Sebastian. Flocks of brown pelicans, in perfect formation, continually flew over his lookout home, making a steady stream of designs in the sky. Creatures of habit, brown pelicans returned to their favorite rookeries, like Pelican Island, every spring and winter to roost and lived year-round along the central coast, which overlapped the subtropical Caribbean zone and the temperate Carolinian zone. Their presence symbolized the oasis that was the Indian River Lagoon. Birds of all kinds, in fact, including man-of-wars with a wingspan of seven and a half feet, were often in migratory flux around his lagoon. There were white ibis, black-crowned night herons, and great blue herons. Sometimes the sky was so blotted with turbulent streams of wading birds that the flocks appeared like a high dome above the crystal blue lagoon. (The Indian River Lagoon was described by several early explorers and settlers as being crystal-clear and blue.) A celebrated founder of the National Association of Audubon Societies, Thomas Gilbert Pearson, in Adventures in Bird Protection, described the mass movement of such flocks as a “great rotating funnel.”13 But because of the plume hunters, eggers, and trigger-happy tourists, every week their numbers were dwindling.

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Paul Kroegel, who faced off against plume hunters in the 1900s, was a pioneer in wildlife conservation not only for Florida, but for the entire nation.

Paul Kroegel. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Keeping vigil over birds, however, wasn’t a livelihood. As with just about all the first-generation settlers in post–Civil War Florida, Kroegel’s primary source of revenue came from farming. Besides beans, citrus groves kept the Kroegels in the black. Within eight years of moving to Sebastian—through perseverance and good seed—the Kroegels were among the most prosperous growers in Florida.14 Sometimes, however, the citrus and bean crops couldn’t survive the deadly frost that blew in around Christmas. A single “big freeze” could cover a year’s worth of agricultural labor in an icy, deadly crust. Priding himself on beating back the frost, wrapping his trees in burlap, Kroegel defiantly grew grapefruit and oranges on his 143 acres of Indian River property when other, less determined farmers had abandoned their crop.* He also tended more than 100 beehives, selling his homegrown honey at a tiny roadside stand. These Florida bees weren’t transported from Europe (like those in New England) but were true “Aborigines.”15And scarcely a week went by when Kroegel wasn’t scything through dense hammocks to cut a trail, sometimes for extra pay and at other times just for the sake of reclamation. “Even though he had a wife and kids,” his grandson Douglas Kroegel recalled, “it seemed it was those birds and trails he cared about the most. Even more than his kids. He was on a mission to put the bad guys [plumers] out of business on Pelican Island no matter what it took.”16

As Kroegel approached his thirty-ninth birthday in 1903, he wondered why the federal government wasn’t stopping the massacre of these Pelican Island birds. After all, Washington, D.C., owned the island and half a dozen adjacent smaller keys in Indian River. Didn’t the Lacey Act prohibit such reckless slaughter? Couldn’t the Roosevelt administration ban it on federal property? Shouldn’t the new law against killing pelicans be enforced as the one in Chemnitz was for storks? Wouldn’t it be smart to create a bird reserve? Just asking these questions made Kroegel an irregular character in the fishing community of Sebastian. With his steely gaze, huge droopy mustache, and blistered boatbuilder’s hands, Kroegel, a father of two, cut an imposing figure for a man only five feet six inches tall. His round face had developed a network of wrinkles, accentuated by a deep year-round tan. Uninterested in clothes, Kroegel often wore heavy wool garments (including sweaters) and Sunday serge in the torrid sun to avoid being “eaten alive” by mosquitoes, which were also considered potential carriers of malaria.17 He often carried an accordion with him to play at weddings and anniversary parties. To the Indian River fishermen in search of juvenile snappers and snook, the pipe-smoking Kroegel was a misanthrope of sorts. Sebastian back then had something of a Jamaican tang. The air smelled of seaweed, freshwater catch, guano, and horse dung. Local seafarers and dirt farmers sat around with basins of fish in the heat, repairing nets; they ostracized Kroegel for being so indignant about plume hunters bagging egrets and gunning down the fish-stealing pelicans which roosted and nested as thick as bats on the treeless Pelican Island rookery.

Like Audubon—who had tramped around the Gulf’s southern tidal swamps—Kroegel would get a careful fix on each bird’s unique temperament, silently crawling up close to measure habits such as skittishness, sociability, and cunning. Colonial waterbirds preferred to nest in colonies, grouping closely together for protection from predators. They particularly liked nesting on thick mangrove clumps, where they could easily glance around every inch of the rookery and sound a choir-like alarm if a predator was approaching. So on any given day Kroegel saw herons mingling with pelicans while spoonbills clustered only two or three feet away. As a dreamer—unschooled in ornithology—he imagined this patch of Florida as a northward extension of the tropics, and that idea invigorated him. But owing to guano buildup and “big freezes,” particularly the horrific freezes of December 1894 and February 1895, many of the mangroves on Pelican Island had died. With no other options, the birds took to constructing their nests on the ground. Kroegel dutifully recorded in a notebook how this change in nesting affected their hunting habits. But whether the birds were perched high or nesting low, pelican sightings on his beloved islet brought him happiness.

Besides studying birds and farming, Kroegel was a boat builder par excellence. Schooners, skiffs, tall-masted sailboats, yachts, collapsible canoes—he constructed them all. Before long his expertise outclassed that of any other Floridian living within a thirty-mile radius of Sebastian and Wabasso.18 With no major roads in the sandy-soil Sebastian area, save a few heavily rutted swampy paths, boating in the Indian River was still the main mode of transportation as the nineteenth century wound down.* Whenever a fierce wind blew off the Atlantic coast, the people of Sebastian—even those who thought Kroegel’s bird-watching too eccentric—were in full agreement that his boats were sure to survive the coming tempest. His exemplary vessels were—without question—the epitome of nautical craftsmanship. Whenever there was a shipwreck in the Atlantic Ocean—like that of the Mary Morse in September 1898—Kroegel would rush out to assist the stranded crew. (In that particular disaster he earned $350 for salvaging the cargo of lumber planks.) Meanwhile, Kroegel had studied hard to earn his captain’s papers from the state at age twenty; he was thereafter known as “Captain Paul.”19

Navigating the shallow Indian River Lagoon—still, according to the Audubon Society, considered the most biologically diverse estuary in America20—had become second nature to Kroegel, as much a part of his daily regime as eating, sleeping, and oystering. Kroegel went out patrolling the Indian River Lagoon at midday, when the invigorating ocean breezes brought wind for his sailboat and welcome relief from pesky sand flies and mosquitoes. Salt marshes with the associated mudflats and tidal creeks provided a wealth of food and habitats for fiddler crabs, marsh rabbits, and wading birds. Self-trained in natural history, Kroegel could tell the difference between smooth cordgrass, saltwort, and glasswort at a glance. At nighttime, starlight and the phosphorescence of more than 250 algae species were his illumination as he rowed passed sorrowing cypress.

Starting in 1902, the Florida Audubon Society paid Kroegel a meager wage to patrol the Indian River Lagoon for plumers. He was a conservationist gatekeeper. With his .10-gauge double-barrel shotgun always close at hand, ready to aim, Kroegel was determined to save the approximately 3,000 brown pelicans on Pelican Island from the barbarians. With his sailboat weaving about in a sort of hurried dance, Kroegel began patrolling the lagoon, threatening anybody who dared to disrupt his Indian River rookery. The worst offenders were thugs who sneaked onto the island under cover of darkness. Because the channel was so narrow, all large vessels going up and down the river had to pass within a scant 100 feet of Pelican Island, keeping Kroegel busy. If a boat dared anchor near the island, off Kroegel went, like an arrow shot from a pulled bow.21 According to family lore, Kroegel slept with one eye open; that’s how seriously he took his wildlife protection job.

III

Like Paul Kroegel, and other grassroots activists, Roosevelt had become disgusted that hunters in Florida would shoot a beautiful roseate spoonbill—to name just one species—so unscrupulous shops could sell its gorgeous wings as cooling fans to “snowbird” tourists in Miami and style-conscious debutantes in New York and Paris. Long ago Roosevelt had read about William Bartham’s travels through wild Florida in the 1790s, and he wanted patches preserved just as that great seventeenth-century naturalist had encountered them at Alachua Savanna and along the Saint Johns River. Intellectually, Roosevelt was uninterested in compromises and in sidestepping conservation issues. When it came to protecting Florida’s endangered wildlife, he was determined to choke the breath from the renegade plumers’s business. He wanted the Lacey Act followed to the letter of the law. The Roosevelt administration’s threat as of early 1903 was serious: shoot a protected nongame bird; go to jail.

In some ways Roosevelt and Kroegel shared many of the plumers’ rough-and-ready Jacksonian attributes. Unhappy away from the outdoors, enamored of even the minutest habits of animal species, they prided themselves on their ability to track down wildlife by hunch and hoof-print. They were both a new breed of outdoorsman who preached wild-life protection.22 Essentially, Kroegel embodied the new Rooseveltian high-water mark in conservation history: the insistence that wildlife had rights. Emulating the naturalist John Muir—who in 1867 had tramped all over Florida, marveling in his journal that the state’s wide rivers did “not appear to be traveling at all”—Kroegel lived to protect “citizen bird.”23 Although Kroegel had never met the president, he knew many of Roosevelt’s naturalist friends, and fancied himself as part of their clique.

This, in fact, was another striking characteristic that made Kroegel sui generis in the Indian River Lagoon area: his uncanny ability to cultivate enduring friendships with a wide array of national wildlife protection leaders. Never formally trained as an ornithologist, he nevertheless enjoyed bantering about shorebirds and was up-to-speed on the cutting-edge Auk articles of his day. Of the many friendships he formed protecting Pelican Island, one proved life-changing: his encounter in 1900 with Frank M. Chapman, curator of ornithology and mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

By the 1880s Chapman—whose mother spent winters in Gainesville at a family cottage near what is today the University of Florida—was considered America’s most prominent popular ornithologist. When Chapman first visited his mother as a young man in his twenties—just after publishing his Handbook of Birds in Eastern North America—he made a long “local list” of the hundreds of birds he encountered in north central Florida, as if he were maintaining a sacred scroll. As a complement, Chapman kept a journal of his chance encounters with long-necked ducks, purple gallinules, and a wide range of ibises. Then he had the central, transformative ornithological experience of his life. One Sunday afternoon shortly after Thanksgiving 1886, while hiking in the pinelands around Alachua Lake, he happened upon an idyllic scene that nearly took his breath away. All around him were magnificent birds behaving in an almost magical fashion. Dutifully, he recorded in his diary what he had encountered that November day:

As I approached the shore numbers of Ducks arose and sought safety in the yellow pond lilies (bonnets) growing some distance from it, and here was a splashing and a calling, a squeaking and squawking, such as I never heard before: odd noises of all sorts and descriptions all unknown to me, and I was without both gun and glass. The place seemed to be alive with birds. Ducks were constantly flying from place to place; coots and Herons were apparently common. On the shore near me birds were just as abundant. A pair of Pileated Woodpeckers, with flaming crests, were pounding away in a tree above my head, and with them were numbers of Flickers, and one Red-bellied Woodpecker. Doves whistled through the woods at my approach, Blue Jays screamed, Mockers chirped, and scores of birds flew from tree to tree. Truly I was in an ornithologist’s paradise.24

What Chapman had stumbled upon was a patch of pristine Florida. For a budding New York ornithologist it was something akin to a fortune seeker stumbling upon a pile of gold. There, before his eyes, was an embodiment of divine law. At once Chapman started collecting Florida’s birds—he shot 581 different ones, to be exact—for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He always wanted the United States to be a step ahead of the British Museum when it came to ornithological studies. If his conscience bothered him at the sight of torn flesh and flying feathers—and it occasionally did—Chapman just blamed the birds’ death on the necessities of modern science. All he could do in good conscience was avoid defacing the dead birds’ exotic splendor any more than absolutely necessary when skinning. Meanwhile, Chapman—considered the supreme authority on Florida’s birds—began exploring new ways for ornithologists to work without guns, using cameras and binoculars.

By the time Roosevelt became president Chapman’s advocacy for “citizen bird” found a literary outlet in a revolutionary little book, which tried to turn the “sportsman’s ethos” on its head. That year Chapman published Bird Studies with a Camera, complete with more than 100 photographs taken by the author himself. This was the kind of evolved birding that Roosevelt approved of—take a photo of the brown pelicans or herons and leave your gun at home. It anticipated eco-tourism and international birding. What Chapman had attempted to do—and by and large succeeded in doing—was to use his camera as “an aid in depicting the life histories of birds.” Sometimes, instead of merely photographing a chickadee at a nest hole or young herons on branches seventy feet from the ground, Chapman would also capture images of their habitat—an application of his philosophy regarding museum displays. “A photograph of a marsh or woods showing the favorite haunts of a species,” Chapman wrote, “is worth more than pages of description.”25

Few wildlife enthusiasts could quarrel with the good intentions of Chapman’s expansive, habitat-conscious nature photography. Most, however, as the modest sales of Bird Studies with a Camera indicated, probably still preferred one of the approximately 430 drawings in Audubon’s Birds of America to Chapman’s photograph of a puffin’s burrow (minus the bird). And their reasoning wasn’t simply a matter of aesthetic pleasure. Real hunters, not the riffraff who slaughtered nesting birds for money, found something missing from Chapman’s philosophy—the chase. To Chapman’s everlasting credit, he bravely confronted the “chase issue” in his proactive book through a combination of salesmanship (with regard to photography) and ridicule (of plume hunting). The essential message of Bird Studies with a Camera was something like “Real men don’t kill little helpless uneatable things for sport.” But true outdoorsmen, like those responsible for Adirondack Park and Crater Lake National Park, didn’t kill shorebirds or songbirds anyway. In some ways Chapman was preaching to the converted. “I can affirm that there is a fascination about the hunting of wild animals with a camera as far ahead of the pleasure to be derived from their pursuit with shotgun or rifle as the sport found in shooting Quail is beyond that of breaking clay ‘Pigeons’” he wrote. “Continuing the comparison, from a sportsman’s standpoint, hunting with a camera is the highest development of man’s inherent love of the chase.”26

That argument seemed reasonable enough. But it wasn’t convincing to true-blue hunters: they refused to feel ashamed of preferring taxidermy to the darkroom. You could almost hear the dismissive grumble from late-nineteenth-century sportsmen piqued about Chapman’s advocacy of the camera. Chapman’s argument, they believed, was a ruse, like comparing apples and oranges. About a third of the way into his book—at which point his ideas were already rejected by most sportsmen—the high-minded Chapman lowered the boom regarding a wildlife protection. “The killing of a bird with a gun,” he wrote, “seems little short of murder after one has attempted to capture its image with a lens.” With slow-boiling rage he continued to challenge the very manhood of “so-called true sportsmen,” arguing that rejoicing over a trophy bag of “mutilated flesh and feathers” of nongame birds was utterly obscene.27

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The ornithologist Frank M. Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History did more to save Florida’s bird rookeries than anyone else in American history. He successfully lobbied President Roosevelt to create federal bird reservations.

Frank M. Chapman. (Courtesy of the American Museum of National History)

Reading Bird Studies was an inspiration for Kroegel. He quickly recognized that Chapman was a kindred spirit like none other, a self-taught ornithologist of deep learning and forbearance. They were, to his mind, a fraternity of two. All the brown pelicans’ habits Kroegel had observed daily from his homestead at Indian River were extolled in gorgeous naturalist prose in Chapman’s Bird Studies. “No traveler ever entered the gates of a foreign city with greater expectancy than I felt as I stepped from my boat on the muddy edge of this City of the Pelicans,” Chapman wrote. “The old birds, without a word of protest, deserted their homes, leaving their eggs and young at my mercy. But the young were as abusive and threatening as their parents were silent and unresisting. Some were on the ground, others in the bushy mangroves, some were coming from the egg, others were learning to fly; but one and all—in a chorus of croaks, barks, and screams, which rings in my ears whenever I think of the experience—united in demanding that I leave town.”28

There—in precise ornithological prose—was Kroegel’s daily reason for skippering a boat around Pelican Island but seldom walking on the sanctuary. In Chapman he had found his own highly personal Thoreau. Chapman had written that brown pelicans had a “dignified way,” that the island was their “metropolis.” Kroegel liked that kind of descriptive imagery. After spending four full days on the roost, Chapman wrote, “During no hour of the twenty-four did silence reign.” The sharp-eyed New Yorker even knew that pelicans liked to flap their broad wings for ten or eleven straight beats. As far as Kroegel knew, nobody, besides himself, had ever done that arithmetic before. And therein is what floored him about Bird Studies. Chapman had done the math. The esteemed ornithologist had counted 251 nests during his stay in March 1898 and then broke the total down as follows:

55 nests with 1 egg each

63      "      " 2 eggs    "    "

23      "      " 3 eggs    "    "

63      "      " 1 young each;

46      "      " 2 young each;

Such field calculations enthralled Kroegel. He thought Chapman was spot-on with his estimate of 2,736 pelicans for the island. The famous ornithologist had also captured the glory of what it sounded like to hear a pelican hatch, calling the young chicks’ first noise on earth a “choking bark.”29 Besides writing about Pelican Island in Bird Studies, Chapman, under Roosevelt’s urging, gave public presentations with stereopticon slides in Boston, Washington, D.C., and New York, bringing the plight of Florida’s tidewater rookeries to a wider audience. He even kept a “bird count” of species he saw women wearing as apparel on Fifth Avenue. In one hour of one day in 1885, he identified 174 birds of forty different species adorning ladies’ hats. In his lectures, he would verbally confront such women for indulging a penchant for precious feathers. Chapman implored them to switch over to domesticated ostrich feathers, which could be plucked or collected without hurting the bird. He had done so himself at an ostrich farm in Florida. The feathers from these flightless birds—celebrated for their fleet-footedness by ancient Egyptian kings—were gorgeous, ideal for hats, decor, and masks. If a woman really wanted to strike a theatrical pose, Chapman would say, then she should don an ostrich feather.

IV

One afternoon Kroegel actually got a chance to meet the mild-mannered, owlish Chapman, who resided at the Oak Lodge in Micco, Florida. The ten-bedroom boardinghouse—situated along the “soothing breeze” belt of the Atlantic Ocean between Melbourne and Vero Beach—was run by Mrs. Frances Latham (known as Ma Latham), a die-hard bird enthusiast who prayed that Pelican Island would someday become a sanctuary. Chapman called Ma Latham a “born naturalist” overflowing with “great enthusiasm and energy” for saving wild Florida.30 “To me she was a combination of mother and guide,” Chapman recalled, “and when…my search for Neofiber [round-tailed muskrat] was rewarded I believe that her pleasure and excitement equaled my own…I never lacked for a sharer of my joys.”31 Salty, no-nonsense, and razor smart, Ma Latham often collected sea turtle eggs to give to herpetologists; once, she collected a full series of loggerhead embryos acquired on daily seashore walks for sixty days.32 She was among the first U.S. naturalists to truly study the egg-burying habits of loggerheads along the east coast of Florida in what is now the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. With her sun-wrinkled face and no-frills pioneer-style dresses, she epitomized hardscrabble Florida slowly entering the automobile age. Turning her back on the Florida gold rush for feathers and eggs, she challenged all plumers and eggers with a cold glare that caused them to cast their eyes downward in guilt.

By the time Roosevelt was president, Oak Lodge had become a way station for Ivy League–trained scientists, naturalists, and botanists enthralled to find more than 2,000 varieties of plants just a short walk away. After an arduous day of collecting, the wildlife lovers would retreat to the lodge at dusk to watch the sun set over the Indian River Lagoon. Over drinks Ma Latham regaled Chapman and the visiting naturalists with offbeat stories about Florida panthers and black bears, which roamed beaches looking for sea turtle eggs to dig up. Abhorrence, however, came easily to Ma Latham when she thought nature was being violated. For example, she strongly opposed haul-seining, a destructive fishing method in which dories were launched into the Atlantic surf with a long net that was then dragged onto the beach by oxen harnessed to a rope. After such intensive labor it was bounty time for the fishermen. However, Ma Latham believed that such unrestricted harvesting would eventually wipe out the tarpon, red snapper, and other fish species. Over time Chapman had learned to love everything about Ma Latham, as did other distinguished New York conservationists such as William Dutcher, William Beebe, Arthur Cleveland Bent, George Shiras III, Outram Bangs, John Burroughs, Louis Aggasiz Fuertes, William T. Hornaday, Herbert K. Job, and Abbott Thayer.33

So it was that in 1900, sensing the main chance to save Pelican Island, Kroegel, a friend of Ma Latham, met with Chapman. She had sent word to Kroegel by boat mail that the great New York ornithologist had arrived. It was just over six miles from Sebastian to Micco, and Kroegel made the trek in record time. The meeting apparently went exceedingly well. For all of Chapman’s urbane book knowledge of birds, Kroegel actually lived amid the cornucopia of rookeries year-round. As a field naturalist Kroegel had studied pelicans longer and harder than Chapman. For obvious reasons Chapman was deeply impressed with the self-taught Kroegel. Certainly the former Wall Street financier and the swamp accordionist weren’t cut from the same socioeconomic cloth. But their shared love of birds made them a formidable united front. Together they constituted a sort of two-man Rough Riders cavalry unit—one from the backwoods, the other from the eastern elite—both determined to save the Pelican Island ecosystem. One can imagine them sitting in the amethyst twilight at Oak Lodge among myrtle oaks—a roaring campfire serving as a mosquito repellent—strategizing about how to save the little rookery from the marauders.

Years before Chapman had met Paul he had, in a sense, been a plume hunter himself (albeit for science). In 1898, for example, he took his new wife, Fanny, to honeymoon on Pelican Island. Other New York dandies may have traveled to Niagara Falls or Bermuda on such an occasion, but Chapman (using Oak Lodge as headquarters) went with Fanny to the Indian River Lagoon to shoot and skin pelicans for the American Museum of Natural History. It turned out to be an inspired choice: the Chapmans marveled at the teeming seabird colony they encountered on that beloved lump of mud and mangrove. Late in life Chapman, by then a well-traveled naturalist, wrote that Pelican Island was “by far the most fascinating place it has ever been my fortune to see in the world of birds.”34

Now, two years after his honeymoon, Chapman had returned to Pelican Island and discovered a 14 percent decline in pelicans. This troubled him greatly. Listening to Kroegel tell about his difficulties protecting the islet, Chapman grew indignant. He recognized that the “Feather Wars” were being fought, and that Kroegel was actually risking his life daily on behalf of the Florida Audubon Society. Then and there Chapman decided that enough was enough. He was now prepared to take the “Feathers War” directly to Roosevelt in the White House. Intuitively Chapman knew that his friend Roosevelt would immediately approve Kroegel’s gun, boat, and “badge,” sponsored by the Audubon Society. Roosevelt would want to shut the plumers’ operation down. Like the cowboys and ranchers Roosevelt admired in the Dakota Territory and the Rough Riders he led into battle—and like what Roosevelt fancied himself to be—Kroegel was a steely, live-off-the-land, never-say-die lover of wildlife. It was as if “the Virginian” had arrived in Vero Beach.35

But Chapman was too wise to pester Roosevelt without first having a sensible game plan. He knew he needed to start with his fellow AOU members William Dutcher and Theodore Palmer. Dutcher was chairman of the AOU Bird Protection Committee and Palmer was assistant chief of the Division of Biological Survey. Both men were instrumental in advocating for bird protection throughout the United States. In fact, they were successful in helping persuade twenty-three states, including Florida in 1901, to pass the AOU model law protecting nongame birds. Florida’s new law enabled the AOU to begin employing wardens to enforce bird protection. Even before this new law was passed, Chapman understood that at Pelican Island more wildlife protection would be needed. He urged Dutcher and Palmer to investigate the possibility of purchasing Pelican Island. A year later, in April 1902, Dutcher hired Paul Kroegel as one of the new Audubon wardens, on the recommendation of Ma Latham.36 And the AOU had a cadastral survey of Pelican Island drawn up by J. O. Fries in July 1902.37

Here was the problem Chapman, Dutcher, and Palmer faced in trying to save Pelican Island: since the federal Lacey Act passed in 1900 and the AOU model law passed in Florida in 1901, the AOU had failed to purchase Pelican Island with Thayer Fund monies, as a result of a serious technicality. Because Pelican Island was designated “unsurveyed” U.S. government property, the General Land Office couldn’t legally authorize its acquisition to create a bird sanctuary. William Dutcher, however, cleverly directed Thayer Fund dollars to commission a survey of Pelican Island acceptable to the General Land Office. He may have been too clever by half. For just as Pelican Island was being officially surveyed—under Dutcher’s impetus—the AOU learned that it had opened up Pandora’s box: once the General Land Office approved the AOU survey, Pelican Island could then be made available to homesteaders. Free land for all who promised to grow crops or plant grapefruit trees—the worst possible scenario for saving the rookery. Even if the homesteading could somehow be averted, Dutcher feared that the New York millinary industry, with its deep pockets, would purposely outbid him just to spite the bird nuts and stick it to the Audubon Society.38

Deeply concerned, Palmer and a fellow AOU member, Frank Bond, asked the Public Surveys Division Chief—Charles L. DuBois—what their options were. It would be suicidal to get into a real estate bidding war against the millinary lobby or try to gain an exemption from homesteading. Wisely, DuBois suggested to them that Pelican Island could legally be made a so-called government reservation by executive order of the president of the United States. The next day Palmer sent that message to Dutcher, in a letter dated February 21, 1903. Palmer urged Dutcher to immediately write to the secretary of agriculture requesting that Pelican Island be set apart as a government reservation.

This would, of course, be unprecedented, but it could nevertheless be done. What a helpful suggestion for DuBois to make! If there was one thing Roosevelt loved, it was setting precedents. You can almost see a cartoon of Dutcher and Chapman thinking “Eureka!” All they needed, to procure Pelican Island for posterity, was (1) to schedule a meeting with Theodore Roosevelt and (2) to convince him on the idea of a bird reservation. Knowing of Roosevelt’s insistence that wildlife protection wasn’t possible without police protection, Chapman now had Paul Kroegel to present as the ideal warden, a counterpart of Captain Anderson at Yellowstone, Ranger Warford in Arizona, or Seth Bullock roaming the Black Hills.39

V

Chapman and Dutcher set up the March 1903 meeting at the White House. And, as noted in the “Prelude,” Roosevelt handed them their reservation on a silver platter. With little more than a wave of the hand, Pelican Island was established as a federal bird reservation by the president’s “I So Declare It.” This was a revolutionary moment for biological conservation. Throughout America in 1903 land was being set aside for wildlife; but it was for private game preserves. The Biltmore estate in Asheville, North Carolina, for example, had sequestered a pristine 100,000-acre forested preserve, and a resort hotel in Virginia saved 10,000 acres along the Chickahominy River for fishing and hunting. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in fact, in its 1903 Yearbook, indicated that more and more large tracts of wilderness were being sold on the private market to the highest bidder. Pelican Island, the department noted, was an anomaly.40

Roosevelt’s initial “I So Declare It”—instituted through the Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Biological Survey division (or, more simply, “Dr. Merriam’s shop”)—wasn’t difficult to establish. It slipped by essentially unnoticed among reams of government appropriations and bills. Immediately, Roosevelt wanted to know the next steps needed to protect Pelican Island’s wildlife. Could Kroegel manage to protect the rookeries in Indian River Lagoon on his own? What other bird sanctuaries needed saving in Florida and elsewhere? These were the kind of probing questions Roosevelt wanted to ask Chapman and Dutcher. Appropriately, the ornithologists, their spirits high, pondered the president’s questions and answered them directly. Breeding grounds in Louisiana and North Dakota were high on their list. Both unofficial advisers believed that only lots of game wardens could curtail the relentless slaughter of birds in Florida. Wildlife needed paid guards to protect it from marauders. At Yellowstone National Park in July 1902, Colonel Charles J. (“Buffalo”) Jones had been appointed game warden—the first in U.S. governmental history. Now, Kroegel joined him as number two. (And Kroegel was the first on behalf of birds). Hiring wardens like Jones and Kroegel was ideally suited to Roosevelt’s innate “sheriff” temperament. As a law enforcement zealot the president liked to brag that he’d personally track down and shackle bird-killing scoundrels himself, if necessary, to send a broad message throughout Florida that there was a new management in town.

Immediately, Roosevelt appointed Kroegel as his first national wildlife refuge warden for Pelican Island. In a U.S. Department of Agriculture letter dated March 24, 1903, Kroegel was put “in charge” of the rookery effective April 1. He would report directly to Merriam.41 Roosevelt was going to organize the Biological Survey as his special force on behalf of wildlife protection. “Paul was a convincing person,” his granddaughter Janice Kroegel Timinsky recalled. “By the time Theodore Roosevelt was president when he told these hunters to flee he was pure intimidation. It helped him psychologically, I think, to have the Audubon Society on his side. Don’t get me wrong—he didn’t change. He was still kind of silent. He didn’t like shouting or yelling. But after the Lacey Act, and with President Roosevelt in charge, they knew Grandpa wasn’t bluffing when he pointed his gun.”42

There was, however, a hiccup. Because the Department of Agriculture had no money earmarked for wardens, the Audubon Society stepped in and paid for Kroegel’s modest salary: one dollar a month. (A couple of years later the Department of Agriculture gave Kroegel a substantial raise, to twelve dollars a month.43) But Paul never balked at the low salary. He was now Warden Kroegel. That’s what mattered. Although he had voluntarily protected wildlife on Pelican Island for years, Kroegel now held the distinction of being America’s first “refuge manager.” On April 28, 1903, Dutcher wrote Kroegel with a laundry list of federal instructions, noting that at all costs he was to “prevent the killing of wild birds or taking of their eggs,” and adding that any violations of President Roosevelt’s executive order should be “reported at once.”44

Word had been delivered loud and clear: President Roosevelt wanted the plumers and eggers flushed. Following Roosevelt’s executive order a ferocious federal crackdown on market hunters rocked Florida. Roosevelt actually relished using the rule of law to incarcerate all the plumers and eggers who could be found. “His sense of right and duty was as inflexible as adamant,” John Burroughs wrote in his diary. “Politicians found him a hard customer.”45

When Kroegel heard that Pelican Island had become a federal bird reservation he matter-of-factly lit his pipe to celebrate. His son Rodney later said he was in a kind of controlled stupor, half-imagining that the Pelican Island decree was a parlor trick from Washington, bound to be revoked. There was, however, no hocus-pocus. The opening salvo in the crusade to save American wildlife had been fired by President Roosevelt. When Warden Kroegel now pointed a rifle muzzle at a pelican poacher, he was doing so with the full authority of the president of the United States. Once again, Roosevelt’s genius as a conservationist was that he never listened to other politicians about how to get things done. His instinct was always to turn to the professional biologists, foresters, and field naturalists first. He always consulted with Darwin-minded men like Chapman, Dutcher, or Pinchot and then acted. Once the biological imperative was established he engaged the rough-and-ready outback types like Kroegel. Over and over again, this was the formula Roosevelt used to eventually set aside more than 234 million acres of America for posterity.

With reserved pride, and a sense of genuine responsibility, as of April 1 Warden Kroegel proudly flew a huge American flag—which the USDA had sent him—on a twelve-foot pole at the end of his long dock at Indian River Lagoon. The instructions from the Roosevelt administration had been for Kroegel to put the gigantic flag on the island itself as an unmistakable federal warning to all encroachers. But Kroegel worried that the bright red-white-and-blue flag might scare away the birds. So the flimsy wooden dock it was. The Kroegel homestead now had the look of a U.S. Coast Guard customhouse. “Folks would be more inclined to not mess with the birds if they saw that flag,” his granddaughter Janice Kroegel Timinsky recalled. “It was his way of saying, ‘Don’t tread here.’”46 The flag also served as a sentinel. When boats sailed past, they would invariably give a patriotic salute by sounding their horns. This alerted Kroegel to head off potential vandals.

Just a couple of months after saving Pelican Island as the first federal bird reservation, Roosevelt decided that he should pay a long-overdue courtesy visit to the author of Florida Game Birds at Lotus Lake on Long Island’s South Shore. Bringing his oldest boy, Ted, who was fifteen, with him (along with his cousin Emlyn Roosevelt’s kids), Roosevelt had much to talk to Uncle Rob about. Together they went bird-watching and drove an automobile around Sayville reminiscing long into the night. Environmentally, two of the states R.B.R. had fought hardest to protect—New York and Florida—were now safeguarded by his nephew. The Roosevelts—Robert and Theodore—were protectors of wild Florida at a time when most rich Americans were searching for development dollars from the coastal state with year-round warm weather.

VI

Kroegel now wore a badge issued by Roosevelt and had framed his diploma-like appointment letter with its raised seal (both courtesy of the Department of Agriculture). But this didn’t mean the Feather Wars of Florida were over in the spring of 1903. For starters, Pelican Island had decades before been shot out by plumer gangs. Seeking roseate spoonbill feathers in full spring color, they had sprayed bullets in every direction, leaving shattered bone and guts strewn about the mangrove islet. Not only did the adult roseate spoonbills die, but the young chicks, suddenly parentless, perished too. Essentially, two whole generations of these birds, among other unlucky species, were simultaneously wiped out.

Compounding Kroegel’s problem was the fact that plumers and eggers soon owned newfangled motorboats. Sailboats—even fine ones built by Kroegel—simply couldn’t keep up with a vessel that could move at forty or fifty miles per hour. Recognizing the disparity in speed, the Florida Audubon Society raised $300 for Kroegel to build a seaworthy twenty-three-foot-long boat fitted with a three-horsepower engine. The power boating era had truly arrived in the Indian River, and the Audubon Society wasn’t going to concede the technology edge to the opposition. The vessel commissioned by the Audubon Society was ideal for tropical seas, rain squalls, and storm-swept distances. Fueled by naphtha, an easily flammable oil product, the motorized Audubon was operative for warden-guide patrols around Florida’s tidal flats and mangrove keys a year before Roosevelt’s “I So Declare It” decree. On July 15, 1902, William Dutcher sent Kroegel a telegram with an immediately pressing need for a motorboat.47

Guy Bradley, a former plume hunter, now a bird protector, was in desperate need of the motorized Audubon down in the Everglades. The AOU had just made Bradley a warden, too. He was something of an Everglades yokel, and his primary responsibilities as warden centered on the islands off Cape Sable—a watery prairie ecosystem at the southernmost point on the U.S. mainland. Here, in the shallow turtle grass flats and marshlands, the great white heron—a swan-white relative of the great blue heron—was making an impressive last stand. Nearly 500 nests of these rare birds had been counted, and there were probably many more.48 The AOU wanted them protected.

Kroegel rendezvoused with Bradley in Miami and turned over the stout little motorboat Audubon. The Audubon Society would pay any out-of-pocket costs incurred. Because Bradley kept a diary (even though it was irregular), we know that the handoff of the boat took place, albeit with a lot of hitches. Kroegel was a superior boatbuilder, but his knowledge of naphtha-fueled motors was very limited. As a result, the Audubon broke down after a relatively untaxing 230-mile trip. The outboard motor had seized, and the boat was dry-docked to work out the kinks.49

By September 1903, the Audubon, at long last, was in tip-top shape and Bradley began chasing plume hunters throughout the Ten Thousand Islands around the cape, venturing up the Shark and Rogers rivers, among others. The state authority made him feel empowered and reverent. After dropping a big mushroom anchor and running a stern line to a mangrove, Bradley, like a Wild West sheriff, would post “No Trespassing” and “Do Not Disturb the Birds” signs on every clam shack or fishing camp he encountered. Often his day companions were the peregrine falcons and bald eagles which coursed the savanna searching for small prey. The ospreys and terns hovered around porpoise schools doing the same. The only hamlets in this strange backcountry region—Flamingo, Chokoloskee, and Cape Sable—each had a sleepy population of roughly fifty people. Still, his flyers didn’t go unnoticed by locals.

By all accounts Bradley made impressive inroads patrolling the Everglades–Florida Bay–Cape Sable areas: a dizzying complex of freshwater sloughs, sapling thickets, cane fields, sawgrass ridges, and tree islands. 50 The tides, which lashed like a hurricane, made much of Cape Sable appear arid, and the saline soil stunted the growth of hardwood hammocks. The steady sunshine Bradley encountered was often blinding, even unearthly. There were no gentle slopes or saddle ridges in this flat, forbidding landscape. But birdlife abounded. “Citizen Bird” enthusiasts, for example, traveled from faraway Boston and New York to see the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, a rare creature that Bradley encountered nearly every day on his beat. Life was good for Bradley, a man who enjoyed being outdoors. Catching silver fish for dinner from the Audubon in the quiet evening air—particularly kingfish or mackerel—he lived well off Florida’s natural bounty. “Guy’s first year as warden had been a busy one,” his biographer Stuart B. McIver wrote. “That year the price offered to hunters for egret plumes rose to thirty-two dollars an ounce, more than twice the price for an ounce of gold. Four egrets had to die to yield an ounce of plumes. Bradley’s vigilance had helped create a scarcity that was driving the price up—and ultimately making the rookeries all the more tempting to plume hunters.”51

Excited that the one-two punch of wardens Kroegel and Bradley was producing constructive results in Florida, Dutcher wrote an AOU report in late 1903 claiming that the tide had turned in the good guys’ favor. The document could be summed up in two words: imminent victory. Clearly, Dutcher understood that slight disturbances still occurred around Cape Sable, but the systematic avian slaughter (he insisted) had ceased. President Roosevelt was elated. Nothing could please him more than the fact that the U.S. Biological Survey and AOU were starting to seize control of precious rookeries to save them for posterity. Dutcher’s enthusiasm, however, was very premature. Bradley—because of the sheer geographical magnitude of his beat—found himself stretched thin and doing the job of ten men.

Chapman—erroneously believing Bradley had taken South Florida from the plumers and eggers around the lower keys, as Dutcher had claimed—journeyed to Florida with his wife to witness the supposedly rejuvenated flocks at the Cuthbert Rookery. Unbeknownst to Bradley, however, either the Smith gang or the “Uncle Steve Boys” (vicious plumer organizations) had been eyeing Cuthbert for a broad-daylight strike. One misbegotten afternoon, when the Audubon was nowhere in sight, one of the bandit gangs pillaged the startled rookery, turning the avian nursery into a bloody slaughterhouse. Guns blazed nonstop. Before long the island was strewn with corpses of egrets and great white herons. Cuthbert Rookery has been “shot out,” a deeply embarrassed Bradley told the Chapmans upon their arrival to Florida. “You could-a-walked right around the ruke-ry on them birds’ bodies, between four and five hundred of ’em.”52

This news, and some investigative sleuthing of his own, made Chapman fear that the Biological Survey wardens, for no fault of their own, were in a precarious situation. The vast Florida Bay waterways Bradley was being asked to protect were impossible to patrol properly without a motorized fleet. President Roosevelt’s warden needed reinforcements and supplies (or at least something more intimidating than a .32-caliber pistol and a single outboard motor). “That man Bradley is going to be killed some time,” Chapman wrote in his journal. “He has been shot at more than once, and some day they are going to get him.”53

Chapman’s diary proved prophetic. On the morning of July 8, 1905, Bradley heard rolling gunfire at Oyster Keys rookery. Using binoculars, he could see the familiar blue boat the Smith gang often used for conducting raids, although it was difficult to see through the powder smoke. Hopping into a dinghy, Bradley rowed out toward the tiny island, determined to stop the killings of birds. Stupefied with anger, Bradley quite simply wasn’t going to suffer another embarrassing massacre on his watch. The Smith gang, it turned out, ignoring the Roosevelt administration’s admonitions, was murdering double-crested cormorants by emptying magazines into their breeding grounds.

Like all colonial birds, double-crested cormorants congregated on islands close to shore. Easily detectable even by a novice bird-watcher because of their shiny black and bronze plumage, cormorants were considered a nuisance by fisherfolk. In the spring and summer many of these long-necked aquatic birds nested along Florida’s coast, while others migrated southward to Florida from more northern nesting grounds. What Roosevelt found fascinating about cormorants—the trait which gave him the most delight—was the way they dived and remained submerged for a long time. Scanning underwater for fish or shrimp, they seldom reappeared with an empty beak. As a Darwinian naturalist he was deeply intrigued that the bird had adapted to underwater life so strikingly.

Roosevelt worried that the disreputable plumers of Florida—“sordid bird-butchers” he later called them in his postpresidential A Book-Lover’s Holidays in the Open—were trying to exterminate the double-crested cormorants just as they did the brown pelicans.54Fishermen, he knew, were worried about depleted shellfish harvesting areas and saw cormorants as competition. The future of cormorants, he believed, was imperiled. If federal intervention didn’t occur, they were headed toward near-extinction. Proactive measures had to be taken quickly. Consulting with ornithologists like Chapman and Dutcher, Roosevelt made it clear that he wanted cormorants protected, even if the U.S. Biological Survey had to hire more wardens quickly.

Somewhat unsteadily, Bradley approached the Smith gang at Oyster Keys, demanding that they drop their guns. He was the law and had come there to make arrests. From the moment he spoke, he was greeted with resistance. A quarrel ensued over whether an arrest warrant was necessary on the waterways; meanwhile, wounded birds, in a frenzy, let out a terrified chant. The initial tension heightened to ferocity. Harsh words were spoken. As the dispute intensified, a sharpshooter in the Smith gang suddenly shot Bradley in the chest, as if he had been wearing a bull’s-eye on his work shirt. “He never knew what hit him,” Walter Smith, head of the gang, the murderer, later told the police. Bradley slumped forward in the bow, bleeding profusely, motionless. His dinghy drifted westward in the slate-gray water. It journeyed over a reef, away from Oyster Keys and out to sea. The corpse of Bradley disappeared into the distant horizon as the Smith gang stood and watched from the shore.55 Bradley had died a martyr in the line of duty, murdered trying to stop an outlaw plumer gang.56

image

Warden Guy Bradley was murdered in Florida for trying to protect bird rookeries from plume hunters.

Warden Guy Bradley. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The National Association of Audubon Societies (NAAS) immediately protested the cold-blooded murder of Guy Bradley, to draw even more attention to the menace of Florida’s rookery killers. Outraged, Roosevelt predictably promised not to cower or retreat in the face of the murder. Instead, he appointed more Department of Agriculture wardens in Florida (in a collaborative venture with the Audubon Society) and grew even more determined to create federal bird reservations (U.S. wildlife refugees) to protect cormorants, pelicans, herons, egrets, and other nongame birds. His belief in the Audubon Society’s mission, in fact, now increased tenfold. “Permit me on behalf of both Mrs. Roosevelt and myself to say how heartily we sympathize not only with the work of the Audubon Societies generally, but particularly in their efforts to stop the sale and use of the so-called ‘Aigrettes’—the plume of white herons,” Roosevelt wrote to Dutcher. “If anything, Mrs. Roosevelt feels more strongly than I do in the matter.”57

Recognizing that the concept of federal bird reservations was the best weapon against pluming, Dutcher staked NAAS’s future on creating sanctuaries like Pelican Island across America. Anger over Bradley’s death spun the feather wars plot. “If the National Association did no other work than to secure Bird Reservations and to guard them during the breeding season,” he said, “its existence would be fully warranted.”58

VII

There is no clear written record of how Paul Kroegel took the murder of Guy Bradley. All we know is that he retrieved the Audubon and continued to patrol Pelican Island in the boat he had built for Bradley. Flushed and confident in 1903 he boated out to Pelican Island with his aged father, Gotlobb, and posted two huge signs on the edge of Pelican Island, as instructed: “No Trespassing: U.S. Government Property.” They hoped these signs would deter plumers and others who would willfully or unknowingly harm the birds. Unfortunately, the huge signs had a deleterious effect on Pelican Island’s wildlife. In November–December 1903, the first winter after President Roosevelt’s “I So Declare It” decree, the birds abandoned the rookeries—they just didn’t show up. Pelican Island was an avian ghost town, with only three or four ruffled vultures poking around the mudflat. It turned out that the signs had intimidated the pelicans, preventing them from landing. Recognizing the mistake and determined to lure the leery birds back, Kroegel, with help from his father and with the concurrence of Frank Chapman, dismantled the billboards in 1904. And just like that, the pelicans returned.

Meanwhile, Chapman returned to Pelican Island in the spring of 1904, 1905, 1908, and 1914. True to form, he kept detailed records of the rookery and reported his findings directly back to Roosevelt, with a professional air.59 Chapman’s elegant black-and-white pictures from those sojourns, ideal for lantern-slide presentations, constituted a high-water mark of nature photography during the progressive era. Emotionally invested in Pelican Island, Chapman was thrilled to learn that his friend Kroegel was still fearless, issuing citations although less frequently pointing his rifle at would-be encroachers. No longer was Kroegel viewed as a bird kook in Sebastian; after all, he was working for none other than President Roosevelt. In 1905, in fact, Kroegel’s local status took another leap upward when he was appointed county commissioner of the new Saint Lucie County by Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward. He held the office for the next fifteen years.

And Roosevelt continued pushing his agenda in Florida. One place in particular, Passage Key, seemed to have taken hold of Roosevelt’s imagination most firmly. Located offshore from Saint Petersburg, at the mouth of Tampa Bay, reachable only by boat, the Passage Key mangrove rookery had the largest nesting colonies of royal terms and sandwich terns in the entire state. There were so many whitish birds on the island that from above they looked like flocks of sheep corralled for market. Although royal and sandwich terns are difficult to distinguish from each other, royal terns are slightly larger and plumper, with an orange bill instead of a black one (yellow-tipped). Trained ornithologists like Roosevelt could also differentiate between them by the sounds they made. A royal tern made a shrill, rolling “keer-reet” whereas a sandwich tern went “kirr-ick.” Both species, however, were known for their wild chirrups when in distress.

When he was based in Tampa Bay in 1898, Roosevelt had grown fond of these terns. In the humid, stifling heat he had watched them fly over the bay with bills pointed downward, plunging into the water for black mullets, gray anchovies, and brown and white shrimp. Now, as president, he had an opportunity to do something permanent to help these pelagic birds survive in the Gulf of Mexico region. Because schools of blackfin and yellowfin tuna were thick around Passage Key, as were blue crabs, Roosevelt feared it might be only a matter of time before the pristine island became a fishing camp; another fear was that it might become a military base. No longer would it look like a deserted tropical orchard—it would be developed. As the gateway island to Tampa Bay, visible with binoculars from both Saint Petersburg (to the north) and Sarasota (to the south), Passage Key was like a natural Statue of Liberty, welcoming seafarers to shore; it was similar in this regard to the Farallon Islands near San Francisco Bay, or to Gibraltar in Spain. If the west coast birds of Florida were to be saved, Passage Key was a fine starting point.

On October 10, 1905, nineteen months after the designation of Pelican Island as a federal reserve, Roosevelt declared Passage Key a federal bird reservation. Signing this executive order whetted his appetite for more preservationist mandates. Not satisfied with having created two biologically intact wonderlands in Florida—Pelican Island (which was enlarged on January 26, 1909)* and Passage Key—Roosevelt asked Chapman, around Thanksgiving 1905, to report back to him on other possible locales in need of preservation.60 Bit by bit he would save America’s finest bird rookeries from molestation. Egrets, herons, pelicans, and dozens of other species could continue being masters of these universes. Before long, the Biological Survey was bombarded with information about ecosystems worthy of federal consideration. Roosevelt was hoping to establish refuges down the entire west coast of Florida. He imagined these sanctuaries as rather like a string of natural pearls dangling downward toward the Caribbean. These new federal bird reservations—which would become “national wildlife refuges” in 1942–were created to demonstrate the Rooseveltian wildlife protection strategy of no surrender, no retreat in Florida.

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