Oil Spill Wildlife Update: Reddish Egret

Photo: USCG/Patrick Kelley

Virtually wiped out by plume hunters a century ago, reddish egrets are slowly returning. About 12,000 live on the Gulf Coast in the U.S., a number small enough to be vulnerable. Oil spills in the Gulf pose a distinct threat to reddish egrets especially, because, unlike other heron species, they’re found only along coastal waters.

“Fortunately, the reddish egret population in the Gulf, while low, is fairly stable, with most birds breeding in Texas and Florida where there was little direct oiling,” says Melanie Driscoll, Audubon’s Direction of Bird Conservation for the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Flyway. In Florida, they nest in mangroves, in mixed colonies, while in Texas, they take to cacti and willow, or even bare sand. “But oil in the food chain may harm them,” says Driscoll, “primarily in shallow, saline waters where submerged oil remains in mats that wash up onto nearby beaches.”

Reddish egrets come in two distinct colors, or morphs: dark with a auburn head and neck, or white. When hunting, they’re entertainingly active, even acrobatic, known to dart and weave and kick up mud to confuse their aquatic prey. High-stepping through the shallows, they flap and shake their wings to startle and shepherd fish.

This “dancing” is a far cry from the usual sit and wait approach which herons make a virtue. But they’ve also got patience, with an added flourish: They’re known for standing stock still with their wings raised overhead to make a large shadow on the water, free of glare, where fish take cover—wrongly.

For more on the reddish egret, read last year's spotlight on the species, posted here on The Perch during the spill. And if you’re willing to risk a bit of dizziness, watch this three-minute video of a reddish egret dancing, one more reason why a major oil spill should never again be allowed to happen: