The Business That Almost Spoiled The Sportsman’s Paradise
The French Market in the 1880s: Wild Ducks Were Regularly Sold in the Stalls
John James Audubon spent part of the winter of 1821 in New Orleans painting portraits and giving art lessons in the French Quarter, but mainly continuing his quest to depict every species he could of American birds.
Audubon was a careful observer of birds in the wild, but he usually used a bird’s carcass as a model. An avid hunter himself, Audubon also hired hunters and gave explicit directions for his needs. While in New Orleans, he paid $25 a month to a hunter named Joseph to furnish bird specimens.
But, Audubon had another source for wild birds: the stalls at the French Market.
On January 8, 1821, he noted in his diary that he went to the market at dawn. “We found many mallards, some teals, some widgeons, Canada geese, snow geese, mergansers, robins, blue birds, starlings, godwits, everything selling extremely high: $1.25 for a pair of ducks, $1.50 for a goose.”
“Much surprised and diverted at finding a barred owl, clean and exposed for sale for 25 cents,” Audubon added.
Louisiana cooks may be adept at turning anything into a tasty dish, but “owl sauce piquante” won’t make it onto many menus these days. In the past, however, wildlife was so plentiful that anything and everything living was looked on as something to eat, or to use, or as goods to be sold.
On March 15, 1821, Audubon described seeing a flock of golden plovers passing overhead from dawn until dusk, with groups of hunters firing at them for hours. “A man near where I was seated had killed 63 dozen,” Audubon noted, guessing that perhaps 140,000 birds were brought down that day. It is not surprising that the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet were hunted to extinction by the twentieth century.
Up until the 20th century, hunting game was not only a pastime, it was a business. Market hunters - the ones who furnished the birds in the stalls - were not all self-employed outdoorsmen. The growth of railroads and of ice manufacturing plants spurred the growth of the wild game business. Large corporations bought acres of marshland in southwest Louisiana, hired hunters, and shipped game by train to New Orleans and beyond. Some estimates have the French Market selling three million ducks a year by 1910.
Although that abundant game was a staple of restaurant menus as well as home kitchens, the birds’ feathers were also a high-priced commodity. A filmy plume from the snowy egret was a sought-after hat trimming. And, there was a brisk market in all wild birds: mocking birds, cardinals and bluebirds were sold as pets. Up until 1912, there were no limits or restricted seasons on migratory bird hunting.
Finally, sportsmen and naturalists joined in a successful effort to protect Louisiana wildlife from mass extinction. A century after Louisiana became a state, the Legislature established hunting seasons in 1912, and every hunter was required to have a license.
The end of the uncontrolled slaughter of Louisiana birds would finally come with the Federal Migratory Bird Act of 1918. This law - and an international treaty - protects birds, feathers, eggs and nests of some 1,000 species today.
The day of the market hunter was over … except, of course, in the police reports. In 2012, a St. James Parish resident was arrested for selling wild game to a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries undercover agent.
A department spokesman explained: “The reason it’s illegal to sell or market wild game in the United States is that if you had a market, hunters would basically wipe out most of the species.”
Even the owls.