From Snowy Egrets to Jungle Gardens

  • Nature, Animals & Parks
  • 1892

Just after the Civil War, E. A. “Ned” McIlhenny was born on Louisiana’s Avery Island—a 2,500 acre dome surrounded by marsh, swamp, and bayou. His family had operated a sugar plantation thereon, but the war put an end to that, so McIlhenny’s father built a new business on the island selling hot pepper sauce—which he and his successors popularized as “Tabasco.” The firm (which is still family owned and operates from Avery Island) was run by Ned for most of his adult life, but Ned is best remembered as a remarkable amateur naturalist. Homeschooled and given free run of the surrounding watery lands, he was sometimes out in nature for days at a time.

Alarmed at the disappearance of the charismatic snowy egret from the region, Ned set up a rookery and refuge near his house in 1892, when he was 20. To quote from his book Bird City, “I went into the swamps in search of nests of the snowy herons to get some young so that I could try to save these beautiful birds
from being exterminated by the hunters who killed them for their feathers with which to decorate ladies’ hats. After several days’ search I found two nests, each containing four young. The eight birds were not yet old enough to fly 
and, storing them in the pockets of my hunting coat, I brought them to the cage I had built.” After rearing the hatchlings in protective captivity he released them in the fall to join their fellow fliers migrating across the Gulf of Mexico. But the following spring they returned, with others of their species. The numbers of egrets breeding in the protection of Avery Island grew every year, helping save the snowy and American egrets from extinction. Today, thousands of water birds still migrate to the private sanctuary near the Tabasco factory.

McIlhenny went on to lead a fascinating life, which included many other contributions to naturalism. He became an Arctic explorer, and collected bird and mammal specimens that are still held in museums (while also helping save, via his hunting skills, more than 200 sailors marooned in Alaska by early-arriving ice). He conducted original research on the habits of many creatures, writing books on the wild turkey, egrets, and the alligator that became standard references. He published heavily in ornithological journals, and banded an astonishing 189,298 birds during his lifetime. He also trained himself in botany—translating from French to English the classic 13-volume iconography of camellias, becoming a pioneer planter and taxonomizer of bamboo, and earning international recognition for his work culturing camellias, azaleas, and irises. He created a 170-acre experimental garden on Avery Island, packed it with interesting plant specimens, and in 1935 opened it to the public as Jungle Gardens, which is still operated as a park by the family, and can be visited in its glory for a modest private admission fee.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, McIlhenny approached major American philanthropists with a proposal to create a string of wildlife refuges along the Louisiana coast. Under his guidance, Charles Ward, Olivia Sage and her foundation, John Rockefeller and his foundation, and others made purchases of marshland totaling 175,000 acres to provide protected winter habitat for upward of a million waterfowl. Back on Avery Island, meanwhile, McIlhenny took pains to preserve the area’s pristine beauty and continue its role as a wildlife refuge even when oil was discovered on the property in 1942. He resolved to demonstrate that energy production and nature could responsibly coexist, and succeeded. Informed by this example, gas and oil production was also allowed a decade later by no less than the Audubon Society at their Paul Rainey Bird Sanctuary in Louisiana.

• McIlhenny biography contained within an article on his bamboo studies,