In 1970, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds introduced a logo in the form of a graphic representation of the head of an Avocet (or a Pied Avocet, if you like, to distinguish it from three New World species of Avocet).
The Avocet was an apt choice because over the previous couple of decades the RSPB had played a major role in re-establishing this species as a breeding bird after its extinction in Britain in 1893. However, an equally suitable logo might have been a Great Crested Grebe, because without this species the RSPB might never have been founded.
Although previously well established in Britain, the Great Crested Grebe almost disappeared in the 19th century. Why? Because of wholesale slaughter in the interest of ladies’ fashion. Smart ladies in the Victorian era loved to wear large hats with wide brims decorated in elaborate creations of silk flowers, ribbons and colourful feathers — and sometimes even the stuffed skins of entire birds.
Because of its exotic head and neck plumes, the Great Crested Grebe was one of the species slaughtered to meet this fashion. Thanks mainly to plume-hunters, Britain’s breeding population plummeted until, in 1860, just 42 breeding pairs were recorded.
In 1889, from her home in Didsbury (now a suburb of Manchester), Emily Williamson set up the Plumage League to campaign against the use of feathers in hat-making. She was concerned at both the cruelty of plume hunting and its severe effect on the population of some species.
The league had just two simple rules: (1) “that members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection”; and (2) “that Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purpose of food, the ostrich only excepted.” (The Ostrich was excluded because its tail-feathers could be harvested without harm.)
As the British species most at risk from plume hunters, the Great Crested Grebe was one of the league’s main concerns. Non-British birds being decimated by plume-hunters included the Roseate Spoonbill and various species of egret, flamingo and bird of paradise. By the time the league was founded, the fashion industry had almost extinguished some of these birds.
In 1891, the league merged with a similar protest group established in Croydon by Eliza Philips, who hosted regular “fur, fin and feather” meetings at her home. They called the merged group the Society for the Protection of Birds. The organisation went on to be granted a Royal Charter in 1904 and has subsequently grown to become the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe, with more than a million members. In 1989, on the centenary of Plumage League’s foundation, a plaque was placed on Emily Williamson’s former home to honour her work.
Thanks to the campaigning begun by Emily and Eliza, there are now more than 5,000 breeding pairs of Great Crested Grebe in the United Kingdom, spread across most of England, lowland Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.