Our Vanishing Wild Life: Its Extermination and Preservation Informative Summary


William T. Hornaday, Director of the New York Zoological Park, presents a stark and urgent plea for the conservation of North America’s wild life in his 1913 book, “Our Vanishing Wild Life: Its Extermination and Preservation.” Hornaday paints a grim picture of a continent rapidly losing its natural treasures due to unchecked human greed and a flawed system of legal protection. He exposes the devastating impacts of market hunting, the use of powerful firearms, and the ignorance and apathy of the public towards the value of wild life. The book serves as a wake-up call, demanding immediate action to protect not only game species but also songbirds and other creatures crucial for the ecological balance.

While detailing the decline of specific species, Hornaday delves into the detrimental effects of the “Army of Destruction,” comprised of diverse groups—from gentlemen sportsmen to ruthless game-hogs and meat-shooters. He highlights the particularly destructive practices of Italians and southern negroes in killing songbirds for food and details the horrors of the international feather trade, exposing the extermination of countless birds of paradise, egrets, and other magnificent species for women’s fashion.

Key Findings:

  • The legal system for the preservation of wild life in North America is fatally defective.
  • The existing game laws, often dictated by hunters, are over-liberal and ineffective in preventing extermination.
  • The demand for wild-life slaughter is far more prevalent today than in the past, with a widespread desire to kill “all that the law allows.”
  • The use of powerful firearms, especially automatic and pump guns, coupled with the absence of bag limits, significantly escalates the pace of extermination.
  • The feather trade, driven by insatiable demand for bird plumage for fashion, is leading to the extinction of countless species worldwide.
  • The destruction of birds for food by Italians and southern negroes has become a serious scourge to North America’s avian fauna.
  • Many bird species, particularly songbirds and those that eat insects, are essential for maintaining ecological balance and protecting agriculture.
  • The high cost of living is directly linked to the destruction of wild life, especially insectivorous birds, which help control insect populations and, consequently, crop damage.


  • The importance of species conservation: The reader learns about the consequences of species extinction, not only in terms of ecological balance but also in the loss of unique and irreplaceable beauty and wonder. Hornaday emphasizes the ethical and moral duty to protect wild life for future generations.
  • The destructive impact of human actions: The book reveals the detrimental effects of human activities on wild life, specifically focusing on the detrimental impacts of hunting, trapping, and commercial exploitation. It highlights the need for responsible and ethical behavior in relation to nature.
  • The power of legislation: Hornaday advocates for strong and comprehensive game laws, emphasizing that education alone is insufficient to protect wild life. He outlines specific strategies for drafting and enacting effective laws, including the importance of adequate penalties and public involvement.
  • The importance of a unified front: The book emphasizes the need for collaboration and cooperation between different stakeholders, including sportsmen, farmers, scientists, and government agencies, to achieve successful conservation efforts.
  • The economic value of wild life: Hornaday exposes the economic benefits of preserving wild life, showcasing the crucial role of birds in controlling insect populations and protecting agricultural crops. This provides a compelling argument for prioritizing conservation efforts based on both ethical and financial grounds.

Historical Context:

Hornaday writes during a period of significant industrialization and urbanization, which greatly impacted wild life habitats. He highlights the increasing pressure on wild life due to expanding agricultural land, the exploitation of natural resources, and the rising demand for meat and fashion items. The book reflects the emerging awareness of conservation issues and the need for more robust laws and practices.


  1. Passenger Pigeon Extinction: The passenger pigeon, once numbering in the billions, became extinct in the wild by the early 20th century, primarily due to relentless hunting for the market.
  2. Heath Hen’s Narrow Escape: The heath hen, a species of grouse, was saved from extinction by the dedicated efforts of ornithologists who established a preserve on Martha’s Vineyard.
  3. Whooping Crane’s Precarious Status: The whooping crane, a magnificent bird, is on the brink of extinction with only a handful of individuals remaining in captivity and a few scattered in the wild.
  4. Flamingo, Ibis, and Spoonbill Vanished: The American flamingo, scarlet ibis, and roseate spoonbill, once inhabitants of the southern US, have been wiped out due to the demand for their feathers for fashion.
  5. Arizona Elk Extermination: The Arizona elk, a distinct species, was completely exterminated by the early 1900s, highlighting the devastating impact of indiscriminate hunting.
  6. The Quagga’s Demise: The quagga, a zebra-like equine, was driven to extinction in the late 19th century due to hunting by European settlers and farmers.
  7. The Rhytina’s Fate: The rhytina, a giant sea cow, was exterminated by sailors and natives in the Bering Sea for its oil and flesh.
  8. Burchell’s Zebra’s Uncertain Future: The original Burchell’s zebra, a unique subspecies, is believed to be extinct, a victim of the relentless pursuit of zebras as a game animal.
  9. Thylacine’s Plight: The thylacine, a wolf-like marsupial, is on the brink of extinction in Tasmania due to poisoning by sheep farmers seeking to protect their livestock.
  10. The West Indian Seal’s Rediscovery: After being believed extinct for decades, a small population of West Indian seals was rediscovered in the 19th century, but their future remains precarious.
  11. California Elephant Seal’s Comeback: The California elephant seal, thought to be extinct, was rediscovered on Guadalupe Island and now has a small population, but its survival is threatened by the possibility of renewed hunting.
  12. The California Grizzly’s Uncertain Fate: The California grizzly bear is likely extinct, with the last known individual in captivity. Its disappearance is attributed to hunting and habitat loss.
  13. Louisiana’s Game Abundance: Louisiana, with its vast marshes and rich natural resources, possesses an old-time abundance of game birds and mammals, but even there, the pressures of hunting are immense.
  14. The “Resident” Hunter’s Threat: Hunters who live in game-rich regions often view the animals as their own, leading to unchecked exploitation and further decline.
  15. The Hunting Cat’s Destructive Impact: Domestic cats, especially those turned feral, have become a major threat to birds and other small mammals in populated areas.
  16. The Silent Threat of Telegraph Wires: Telegraph and telephone wires have claimed countless bird lives through collisions.
  17. The Delicate Balance of Predation: While predatory animals do impact game populations, their numbers have been significantly reduced due to human intervention, altering the natural balance.
  18. Disease’s Impact on Wild Life: Diseases like rinderpest, caribou disease, and lumpy-jaw have caused substantial losses in wild animal populations.
  19. The Rabbit Plague: In areas with dense rabbit populations, periodic plagues caused by parasitic infections can decimate the population.
  20. Natural Disasters’ Impact: Severe winters, blizzards, and other natural events can cause substantial mortality among birds and mammals.


  1. Louisiana’s Slaughter: In 1909-10, Louisiana officially recorded the killing of over 8 million game birds and mammals, including 3.1 million ducks and 1.1 million quail.
  2. Michigan’s Pigeon Slaughter: In 1869, three carloads of passenger pigeons were shipped to market from a single Michigan town each day for forty days, totaling 11,880,000 birds.
  3. The Passenger Pigeon’s Abundance: Alexander Wilson estimated that a single flock of passenger pigeons he witnessed contained up to 2,230,272,000 individuals.
  4. The Eskimo Curlew’s Decline: The Eskimo curlew population has declined by 90% in the last 50 years, with only a few sightings recorded in the 20th century.
  5. The Carolina Parakeet’s Last Stand: Only ten Carolina parakeets remain alive in captivity, with wild specimens thought to be extinct.
  6. The California Condor’s Range: The California condor is now confined to seven counties in southern California, a stark reduction from its former range.
  7. Heath Hen’s Decline: The heath hen population on Martha’s Vineyard, where the species is confined, has remained stagnant at around 200 individuals.
  8. The Wood Duck’s Fate: Fifteen states allow the hunting of wood ducks for food, with some providing extra-long open seasons.
  9. The Gray Squirrel’s Vanishing: The gray squirrel, once abundant, has disappeared from most of its original range due to hunting and habitat loss.
  10. The Market for Dead Birds: In 1902, a single cold storage warehouse in New York contained over 30,000 dead birds, primarily songbirds, intended for the market.
  11. The Cost of “Free” Game: The annual sale of wild game in the United States represents millions of dollars, far exceeding the revenue from license fees.
  12. The Army of Destruction: In 1911, over 2.6 million hunting licenses were issued in the United States, with many more hunters operating illegally.
  13. The Cost of Unchecked Pests: The annual loss to US agriculture from insect pests is estimated at over $795 million, highlighting the economic consequences of neglecting wild life conservation.
  14. The Value of Insect-Eating Birds: The downy woodpecker, a primary predator of the codling moth, is estimated to be worth $20 per individual to orchard owners.
  15. The Bob-White’s Diet: The bob white quail consumes seeds from 129 different weed species, along with a variety of insect pests.
  16. The Robin’s Diet: The robin’s diet consists primarily of insects (40%), wild fruits (43%), and cultivated fruit (8%).
  17. The Sparrow’s Appetite: Sparrows are highly effective weed-seed eaters, consuming an estimated 1,750,000 pounds of weed seeds annually in Iowa.
  18. The Hawk’s Bounty Law’s Cost: Pennsylvania’s hawk and owl bounty law, enacted in 1885, led to the killing of 180,000 birds of prey in two years, ultimately resulting in an estimated $2 million in damage to crops.
  19. The Barn Owl’s Effectiveness: A single barn owl, a primary predator of rats and mice, was found to have consumed 453 noxious mammals in its nest.
  20. The Cost of Wildlife Destruction: In the 1900s, the killing of wild ducks in the Great Salt Lake region was so significant that an epidemic of intestinal coccidiosis wiped out thousands of birds, causing a temporary shutdown of shooting clubs.


  1. Aigrette: A long, decorative plume found on the back of certain herons and egrets, highly valued for fashion.
  2. Rinderpest: A highly contagious and often fatal viral disease that affects cattle and other ruminants.
  3. Actinomycosis: A chronic, infectious disease, also known as lumpy jaw, commonly affecting cattle and occasionally other animals, including antelope and sheep.
  4. Strongylus strigosus: A parasitic worm that infects rabbits and hares, causing a disease known as strongylosis and leading to anemia and emaciation.
  5. Sarcosporidia: A group of parasitic protozoans that infect the muscle tissues of various animals, including birds.
  6. Roccolo: A traditional Italian bird trap, often used for catching songbirds during their migration.
  7. Punt Gun: A large-bore shotgun, often mounted on a boat, historically used for waterfowl hunting.
  8. Garcero: A Venezuelan egret farm, where birds are supposedly managed for their shed plumes.
  9. Shikaree: A native hunter, often employed as a guide for sportsmen, in South Asia.
  10. Lalang Grass: A type of tall grass commonly found in Southeast Asia, which can quickly dominate cleared areas after deforestation.


  1. The Italian Roccolo: Mr. Hubert D. Astley describes the gruesome practice of trapping and killing songbirds in Italy using a device called a “roccolo,” involving decoys with their eyes blinded by red-hot wires.
  2. The Louisiana Egret Preserve: Mr. E.A. McIlhenny established a successful egret preserve on Avery Island, Louisiana, protecting thousands of egrets and herons from plume hunters.
  3. The Laysan Island Tragedy: A man named Max Schlemmer led a brutal slaughter of over 300,000 seabirds on Laysan Island, part of the Hawaiian Islands Reservation, for their feathers.
  4. The Champion Game Slaughter Case: Two hunters in California killed 450 geese in one day, showcasing the destructive potential of automatic shotguns and unethical hunting practices.
  5. The “Sunday Gun” Threat: A compact rifle-shotgun combination, known as the “Sunday gun,” is used by city dwellers to hunt small birds and mammals on weekends, making them a significant threat to non-game species.
  6. The Wyoming Elk Problem: The elk herds of Yellowstone Park often migrate to the Jackson Hole area, Wyoming, where their access to winter grazing grounds has been limited by ranch fencing, leading to starvation and the need for government intervention.
  7. The Avoca Deer Story: In Iowa, a farmer released 32 deer from his paddock, which rapidly increased to 400, with locals choosing to protect and even make pets of them instead of hunting them.
  8. The Vermont Deer Success Story: Thirteen deer introduced to a forest in Vermont in 1875 increased to such a degree that the state opened a limited hunting season and is now managing the deer population.
  9. The Case of Pittsboro, North Carolina: The Mayor of Pittsboro allowed the town’s residents to kill robins during a heavy snowfall, resulting in a massive slaughter of these birds.
  10. The Case of the Chinese Cold Storage Warehouse: A large cold storage warehouse in Hankow, China, is used to freeze and export thousands of pheasants and other birds to Europe, further depleting wild bird populations.


“Our Vanishing Wild Life” is a powerful testament to the urgent need for wild life conservation. Hornaday’s detailed account of the relentless destruction of North America’s fauna, combined with his passionate plea for change, exposes the folly of unchecked exploitation and the dire consequences of inaction. The book serves as a valuable historical document, highlighting the evolution of the conservation movement and the growing awareness of the importance of protecting nature.

Hornaday urges readers to reject the outdated notions of wild life as merely a resource to be exploited and instead embrace a holistic understanding of its inherent value. He calls for a complete transformation in our approach to nature, demanding that we move from an era of slaughter to one of preservation, acknowledging our responsibility to protect wild life for future generations. He advocates for strong legislation, the elimination of unethical hunting practices, and the active participation of all citizens in the cause of conservation. “Our Vanishing Wild Life” stands as a timeless reminder that the fate of our planet’s natural wonders hinges upon our willingness to protect and cherish them.

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