It was founded by Tabasco sauce heir and conservationist Edward Avery McIlhenny, whose family owned Avery Island. McIlhenny established the refuge around 1895 on his own personal tract of the 2,200-acre island, a 250-acre estate known eventually as Jungle Gardens because of its lush tropical flora.
By the late nineteenth century, plume hunters had nearly wiped out the snowy egret population of the United States in pursuit of the bird's delicate feathers, which were commonly used by milliners for the adornment of ladies' hats.
Alarmed by this trend, McIlhenny searched the Gulf Coast and located several surviving egrets, which he took back to his estate on Avery Island. There he turned the birds loose in a type of aviary he called a "flying cage," where the birds soon adapted to their new surroundings. In the fall McIlhenny set the birds loose to migrate south for the winter.
As he hoped, the birds returned to Avery Island in the spring, bringing with them even more snowy egrets. This pattern continued until, by 1911, the refuge served as the summer nesting ground for an estimated 100,000 egrets.
Today, snowy egrets continue to return to Bird City each spring to nest until resuming their migration in the fall.