Great EgretArdea alba

adult, breeding
Adrian & Jane Binns/VIREO
adult
Arthur Morris/VIREO
adult
Greg Lasley/VIREO
adult, nonbreeding
Arthur Morris/VIREO

Description

A tall, stately white wader of quiet waters. Common, especially in the south, it may wander far to the north in late summer. Nearly wiped out in the United States in the late 1800s, when its plumes were sought for use in fashion, the Great Egret made a comeback after early conservationists put a stop to the slaughter and protected its colonies; as a result, this bird became the symbol of the National Audubon Society.

Habitat

Marshes, ponds, shores, mud flats. Usually forages in rather open situations, as along edges of lakes, large marshes, shallow coastal lagoons and estuaries; also along rivers in wooded country. Usually nests in trees or shrubs near water, sometimes in thickets some distance from water, sometimes low in marsh.

Feeding Diet

Mostly fish. Aside from fish, also eats crustaceans, frogs, salamanders, snakes, aquatic insects. In open fields may catch grasshoppers, rodents. Has been seen catching small rails and other birds.

Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly by standing or walking in shallow water, waiting for fish to come near, then catching them with rapid thrust of bill. May feed in flocks or in association with other herons, cormorants, ibises, sometimes stealing food from smaller birds. Also forages in open fields, sometimes around cattle.

Nesting

Probably first breeds at age of 2-3 years. Sometimes nests in isolated pairs, usually in colonies, often mixed with other wading birds, cormorants, Anhingas. In mixed colonies, Great Egrets tend to nest high. Male selects nest area and displays there, at first driving away all other birds, later courting females. Courtship displays include calling, circular display flight, stretching neck up with bill pointed skyward. Nest: Site is in tree or shrub, usually 10-40' above ground or water, sometimes very low in thicket or marsh, sometimes up to 90' high in tall cypress. Nest (built by both sexes) a platform of sticks, sometimes substantial. Eggs: 3-4, sometimes 1-6. Pale blue-green. Incubation is by both sexes, 23-26 days. Young: Both parents feed young, by regurgitation. Young may clamber out of nest at 3 weeks, able to fly at 6-7 weeks.

Eggs

3-4, sometimes 1-6. Pale blue-green. Incubation is by both sexes, 23-26 days. Young: Both parents feed young, by regurgitation. Young may clamber out of nest at 3 weeks, able to fly at 6-7 weeks.

Young

Both parents feed young, by regurgitation. Young may clamber out of nest at 3 weeks, able to fly at 6-7 weeks.

Conservation

Populations were decimated by plume hunters in late 1800s, recovered rapidly with protection early in 20th century. In recent decades, breeding range has been expanding gradually northward, while there is some evidence that southern populations have declined.

Range

Withdraws in winter from northern breeding areas, wintering only where waters remain open. After breeding season, often wanders far to north in late summer. In 1930s and 1940s there were a few large northward invasions (e.g., over 1500 reached Massachusetts in 1948), but not recorded in such numbers since.

Listen

croaks of courting group
croaks
nestling calls

Similar Species

adult

Great Blue Heron

Widespread and familiar (though often called "crane"), the largest heron in North America. Often seen standing silently along inland rivers or lakeshores, or flying high overhead, with slow wingbeats, its head hunched back onto its shoulders. Highly adaptable, it thrives around all kinds of waters from subtropical mangrove swamps to desert rivers to the coastline of southern Alaska. With its variable diet it is able to spend the winter farther north than most herons, even in areas where most waters freeze.

adult

Whooping Crane

One of the rarest North American birds, and also one of the largest and most magnificent. Once fairly widespread on the northern prairies, it was brought to the brink of extinction in the 1940s, but strict protection has brought the wild population back to well over one hundred. The flock that winters on the central Texas coast flies 2400 miles north to nest in Wood Buffalo National Park in central Canada; this remote breeding area was not discovered until 1954.

adult, breeding

Snowy Egret

A beautiful, graceful small egret, very active in its feeding behavior in shallow waters. Known by its contrasting yellow feet, could be said to dance in the shallows on golden slippers. The species was slaughtered for its plumes in the 19th century, but protection brought a rapid recovery of numbers, and the Snowy Egret is now more widespread and common than ever. Its delicate appearance is belied by its harsh and raucous calls around its nesting colonies.

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