At the turn of the 20th century, thousands of birds were being killed in order to provide feathers to decorate women's hats. The fashion craze, which began in the 1870s, became so widespread that by 1886 birds were being killed for the millinery trade at a rate of five million a year; many species faced extinction as a result. In Florida, plume birds were first driven away from the most populated areas in the northern part of the state, and forced to nest further south. Rookeries concentrated in and around the Everglades area, which had abundant food and seasonal dry periods, ideal for nesting birds. By the late 1880s, there were no longer any large numbers of plume birds within reach of Florida's most settled cities.
The most popular plumes came from various species of egret, known as "little snowies" for their snowy-white feathers; even more prized were the "nuptial plumes", grown during the mating season and displayed by birds during courtship. So-called "osprey" plumes, actually egret plumes, were used as part of British army uniforms until they were discontinued in 1889. Poachers often entered the densely populated rookeries, where they would shoot and then pluck the roosting birds clean, leaving their carcasses to rot. Unprotected eggs became easy prey for predators, as were newly hatched birds, who also starved or died from exposure. One ex-poacher would later write of the practice, "The heads and necks of the young birds were hanging out of the nests by the hundreds. I am done with bird hunting forever!"