The Spice Island
On Avery Island, the first family of hot sauce runs a nursery for nesting egrets while keeping a close eye on the health of its beloved marshland and bayous
Seven birds drop from the sky, from the north. They set their wings three hundred yards from the pond, and glide. Not a wing beat, not a flutter. At that distance each bird is a double scimitar of pearlescent color on the blue Louisiana sky, but as they glide closer I can pick out details—the stout beak, a long, crooked neck, a rudder of black legs trailing behind. The great egrets wheel over the cypress and sail down in a helix, settling with their peers onto racks fashioned from two-by-fours and floored with cut bamboo. For this is a man-made rookery, an artificial nursery. And there are hundreds of the tall white egrets. And in an hour, thousands of them. ¶ Welcome to Bird City.
In 1895, E. A. McIlhenny, son of Tabasco sauce inventor Edmund McIlhenny, built a small pond on the family’s Avery Island estate in the marshes of the Louisiana coast south of Baton Rouge. An avid hunter and naturalist—he would in coming years publish scholarly articles on wildlife and conservation, and gain renown as an Arctic explorer—E. A. had developed a passion for coastal Louisiana’s wading birds, and was curious to see if he could entice the elegant birds to make Avery Island home.
Already the McIlhenny family had become synonymous with their fast-growing pepper sauce. Originally distributed in cologne bottles and given to friends and family, Tabasco sauce was first marketed in the late 1860s in Gulf Coast grocery stores. From the 1868 crop of peppers, Edmund produced 658 bottles of Tabasco sauce. In 1870, a few more than 1,000. Twenty years later, more than 41,000. Today, the McIlhenny family still bottles Tabasco sauce—hundreds of thousands of bottles each day, more bottles in a day than Edmund bottled in his lifetime. Fermented and aged in old wooden bourbon casks in a giant warehouse on Avery Island, Tabasco sauce is sold in more than 165 countries and territories.
Prosperous as Edmund McIlhenny’s hot sauce experiment turned out, E. A. could hardly have foreseen the success of his pond-digging venture. Today, tens of thousands of nesting wading birds—great and snowy egrets, great blue herons, tricolor herons, night herons, and more—return to nest at Bird City each spring and summer. And while wading birds remain a cornerstone of the company’s outreach efforts on behalf of wildlife conservation, the extended McIlhenny family is working to not only preserve the iconic birds of the Louisiana coast, but help save the embattled coast itself.