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Great Egret

Ardea alba ORDER: PELECANIFORMES FAMILY: ARDEIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The elegant Great Egret is a dazzling sight in many a North American wetland. Slightly smaller and more svelte than a Great Blue Heron, these are still large birds with impressive wingspans. They hunt in classic heron fashion, standing immobile or wading through wetlands to capture fish with a deadly jab of their yellow bill. Great Egrets were hunted nearly to extinction for their plumes in the late nineteenth century, sparking conservation movements and some of the first laws to protect birds.

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Keys to identification Help

Herons
Herons
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Great Egrets are tall, long-legged wading birds with long, S-curved necks and long, dagger-like bills. In flight, the long neck is tucked in and the legs extend far beyond the tip of the short tail.

  • Color Pattern

    All feathers on Great Egrets are white. Their bills are yellowish-orange, and the legs black.

  • Behavior

    Great Egrets wade in shallow water (both fresh and salt) to hunt fish, frogs, and other small aquatic animals. They typically stand still and watch for unsuspecting prey to pass by. Then, with startling speed, the egrets strike with a jab of their long neck and bill.

  • Habitat

    You’ll find Great Egrets in both freshwater and saltwater habitats. They are colonial nesters, typically placing stick nests high in trees, often on islands that are isolated from mammalian predators such as raccoons.

Range Map Help

Great Egret Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Great Egret

    Adult
    • Large white egret
    • Long, black legs
    • Heavy, pointed, yellow-orange bill
    • © Jim Mcree, Bangor, Maine, August 2010
  • Adult

    Great Egret

    Adult
    • Large, all-white egret
    • Long, black legs
    • Long, dagger-like, yellow bill
    • © Lois Manowitz, Fort Lowell Park, Tucson, Arizona, January 2010
  • Breeding adult

    Great Egret

    Breeding adult
    • Breeding adults show thin, wispy nuptial plumes on body
    • Large, all-white egret
    • Long, pointed yellow-orange bill
    • © Lorcan Keating, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California, January 2009
  • Breeding adult

    Great Egret

    Breeding adult
    • Large, white egret
    • Black legs
    • Wispy "nuptial plumes" emerge from body in breeding season
    • © Mike Baird, Morro Bay, California, April 2009
  • Adult

    Great Egret

    Adult
    • Large, white egret
    • Long, curved neck
    • Long, black legs
    • Sharp, pointed yellow bill
    • © Redstar, Ridgefield NWR, Oregon, August 2010
  • Adult

    Great Egret

    Adult
    • Large white egret
    • Distinctive in flight with neck tucked in and long, black legs trailing behind
    • Long, dagger-like yellow bill
    • © Syd Phillips, Old Hickory Lake, Wilson County, Tennessee, September 2011

Similar Species

  • White morph adult

    Great Blue Heron

    White morph adult
    • "White morph" of Great Blue Heron found only in south Florida
    • Larger and stockier than Great Egret
    • Paler, yellow-gray legs
    • Heavier, duskier bill
    • © Jim Gilbert, Marathon, Florida, April 2007
  • Adult

    Snowy Egret

    Adult
    • Smaller and more slender than Great Egret
    • Black legs contrast with distinctive, yellow feet
    • Yellow patch at base of black bill
    • © Ned Harris, Bolsa Chica Wetlands, Huntington Beach, California, September 2011
  • Adult Breeding

    Cattle Egret

    Adult Breeding
    • Smaller, shorter, and more compact than Great Egret
    • Short, yellow bill
    • Shows some buffy coloration in breeding season
    • Pale yellow legs
    • © Robinsegg, Farmington Bay, Utah, May 2008
  • Immature

    Little Blue Heron

    Immature
    • Smaller and more slender than Great Egret
    • Grayish bill with black tip
    • Shorter, pale gray legs
    • © Sage, Fort Meyers, Florida, March 2011
  • White morph adult

    Reddish Egret

    White morph adult
    • Smaller and more slender than Great Egret
    • Pink bill with black tip
    • Stringy, shaggy plumes on neck and breast
    • © Roy Brown, Dauphin Island, Alabama, April 2010

Similar Species

The all-white Snowy Egret is much smaller than a Great Egret, and has a more slender black bill and black legs with bright-yellow feet. Young Little Blue Herons are mostly white, but are much smaller than Great Egrets and have dusky wingtips. The white morph of the Reddish Egret has a bicolored bill with a dark tip and pink base. In southern Florida you may see the white morph of the Great Blue Heron, also called the “Great White” Heron. They are larger, with a thicker bill and chalky, flesh-colored legs rather than the Great Egret’s neat black legs. Wood Storks are less graceful-looking than Great Egrets, with a downcurved bill, dark, unfeathered head, and shorter neck; in flight you’ll also see extensive black in the flight feathers.

Find This Bird

Visit a pond or coastal marsh and look for an all-white bird—slightly smaller than a Great Blue Heron, with black legs and a yellow bill. It may be wading slowly or standing stock-still, peering intently at the water as it searches for fish. If you live outside of the species’ breeding range, you may still see Great Egrets in late summer as they move about widely before heading to their wintering grounds.