The greater adjutant isn’t conventionally beautiful, what with its patchy head, scraggly appearance, and flaccid neck pouch. And yet, this lanky bird — the largest in the stork family — was once a celebrated part of the Victorian fashion world.
This was back in the late 1800s. The East India Company was thriving, Calcutta was a hotbed of activity, and feathers were all the rage among England’s society women (and by extension, in the white quarters of Calcutta too). The plumage of the young adjutant in particular, was held “in much esteem in France and England,” writes Emma Roberts in her book, Scenes and Characteristics of Hindostan (1895). Catching the birds was prohibited by law, which meant the feathers fetched a pretty price on the black market. Pretty enough for them to be worth shipping all the way to London where they were used to make slinky shoulder capes and feather boas. “Excepting the heron’s,” Roberts writes in her book, “there are no other Indian plumes so highly prized as an article of commerce.”
Ironically, the same birds were considered pretty unhygienic by the residents of Kolkata, as they spent much of their time near garbage dumps on the outskirts of the city. This is because the greater adjutant is a scavenger, like the vulture, and subsists on carrion and other waste. Where there are humans, they quickly learned, there is plenty of waste. In fact, a number of paintings from the British era depict the birds circling above the city, or perched by the side of the road, or on rooftops. Some accounts say, there was a stork for every house.