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LESSONS: Science - Endangered

Loved to Death: A Lesson in Endangered Species from The Shining Cloth: Dress and Adornment that Glitter by Victoria Z. Rivers. For more information on Kingfisher feathers, see Roland Hartman, "Kingfisher Feather Jewelry", Arts of Asia, 10 (3), 1980, pp. 75-81.

This is the story of a beautiful bird called the Eurasian Kingfisher. In one part of the world, these birds were loved to death because of their brilliant turquoise feathers. The Eurasian Kingfisher, scientific name Alcedoatthis, lives throughout Asia and is a member of the family Alcedinidae. The birds live in rainforests, woodlands, grassy plains - almost anywhere near streams and shores. Many have a reddish belly and shocking, electric blue backs, but some are green and brown. When the Eurasian Kingfisher flies, the stunning patch of shimmering turquoise is visible.

In China and parts of Mongolia, ornaments made with Kingfisher feathers have been very important. In China, the radiant violet to turquoise Kingfisher feathers are called fei-tsÕui . The feathers came from the Chinese southern highlands, and ornaments were made in Canton and Beijing. These feathers have been highly prized since at least 200 BC for use in jewelry and headdresses. There are historic accounts of a royal bed chamber, which dazzled with the electric blue hue of kingfisher feathers. The bed frame was hung with feathered tapestries and the bedspread, too, was a sea of kingfisher feathers strewn with pearls. Another story tells of a princess' crown found in a tomb outside of Beijing. The crown has gold dragons and phoenix birds covered with iridescent blue kingfisher feathers and thousands of pearls, rubies, sapphires and other precious stones. In the 18th and 19th centuries, magnificent fei-ts'ei headresses were fashionable among ladies of the Chinese Court. The Kingfisher feathers were stitched, appliqued, woven, and glued onto small pieces of metal and later, cardboard to make shimmering blue ornaments. Wicker, metal or papier maché frames were sometimes covered with kingfisher feathers and combined with Peking glass ornaments and semi-precious materials like pearls and coral beads. Individual feather-covered shapes were even attached with springs, so that iridescent blue light glinted with every motion of the wearer's head.

Chinese brides also wore Kingfisher headdresses, because bridal couples were treated like royalty on their wedding days. Brides were considered empress for the day, so their headdresses often imitated those worn in the courts. The feathers became synonymous with happiness and prosperity, for the many auspicious images that were composed from the feather ornaments. Some ornaments made statements like, "May you prosper for five generations". Look at the Kingfisher feather headband, image number 7/2 depicted in Feathers/Seeds/Minerals within the Gallery section of The Shining Cloth web site (http://shiningcloth.ucdavis.edu). The headband means "good luck bat bringing money". In the Chinese language, the word for bat is a homonym, which means it sounds the same as the word hu, which means good fortune. If you look carefully at the feather headband, the bat is holding two coins in its mouth.

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, people started wearing Kingfisher feathers on occasions besides their weddings. Small combs and other Kingfisher feather ornaments became fashionable, for their lucky associations and beautiful colors. By the 1930s, the demand for Kingfisher feathers far exceeded the supply. The birds were overly hunted for their feathers, and in China the Eurasian Kingfisher became extinct. Workshops started importing Kingfisher feathers from India. But soon, the ornaments were everywhere. They were not very well made either, because the workshops were in too great a hurry to fill their orders. Can you imagine how many birds died so people could wear their feathers? Luckily, by the 1930s wearing fei-ts'ei fell out of fashion, and Eurasian Kingfishers are still found in India and other places in Southeast Asia.

Discussion and Projects:

1. What is "extinction"? What are some causes of extinction among wild animal species?

2. What do humans loose when a species becomes extinct?

3. What are some ways animals are used by humans? Name some ways that cause death and name some ways that do not.

4. Is it "worth" the beauty, or other qualities humans desire, to wear things that come from animals? Is there a line between right and wrong?

5. What is the difference between when an animal is "threatened", "rare" and "endangered"?

6. Can you name some endangered animals in the United States? Perhaps the class can do some research on US species listed by the US Department of the Interior.

Answer to 1. Extinction means the species has disappeared. Answer to 5. "Endangered" means the species is in immediate danger of extinction. "Threatened" means the species is declining in numbers. "Rare" means the species is not yet in danger, but there is cause for concern due to low numbers. (from Project Wild, K-12 Activity Guide, Council for Environmental Education and Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, p. 170-173.)