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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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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
37–40.9 in
94–104 cm
Wingspan
51.6–57.1 in
131–145 cm
Weight
35.3 oz
1000 g
Relative Size
Smaller than a Great Blue Heron; larger than a Snowy Egret.
Other Names
  • Great White Egret (British English)
  • Grande Aigrette (French)
  • Garza blanca, Garza grande, Garza real (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Great Egret is the symbol of the National Audubon Society, one of the oldest environmental organizations in North America. Audubon was founded to protect birds from being killed for their feathers.
  • Not all young that hatch survive the nestling period. Aggression among nestlings is common and large chicks frequently kill their smaller siblings. This behavior, known as siblicide, is not uncommon among birds such as hawks, owls, and herons, and is often a result of poor breeding conditions in a given year.
  • The oldest known Great Egret was 22 years, 10 months old and was banded in Ohio.
  • The pristinely white Great Egret gets even more dressed up for the breeding season. A patch of skin on its face turns neon green, and long plumes grow from its back. Called aigrettes, those plumes were the bane of egrets in the late nineteenth century, when such adornments were prized for ladies’ hats.
  • In mixed-species colonies, Great Egrets are often the first species to arrive, and their presence may induce nesting among other species.
  • Great Egrets fly slowly but powerfully: with just two wingbeats per second their cruising speed is around 25 miles an hour.
  • Though it mainly hunts while wading, the Great Egret occasionally swims to capture prey or hovers (somewhat laboriously) over the water and dips for fish.

Habitat


Marsh

Great Egrets live in freshwater, brackish, and marine wetlands. During the breeding season they live in colonies in trees or shrubs with other waterbirds, ranging across the southeastern states and in scattered spots throughout the rest of the U.S. and southern Canada. The colonies are located on lakes, ponds, marshes, estuaries, impoundments, and islands. Great Egrets use similar habitats for migration stopover sites and wintering grounds. They hunt in marshes, swamps, streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, impoundments, lagoons, tidal flats, canals, ditches, fish-rearing ponds, flooded farm fields, and sometimes upland habitats.

Food


Fish

The Great Egret eats mainly small fish but also eats amphibians, reptiles, birds, small mammals and invertebrates such as crayfish, prawns, shrimp, polychaete worms, isopods, dragonflies and damselflies, whirligig beetles, giant water bugs, and grasshoppers. It hunts in belly-deep or shallower water in marine, brackish, and freshwater wetlands, alone or in groups. It wades as it searches for prey, or simply stands still to wait for prey to approach.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
2.2–2.4 in
5.5–6 cm
Egg Width
1.6–1.7 in
4–4.3 cm
Incubation Period
23–27 days
Nestling Period
21–25 days
Egg Description
Smooth, pale greenish blue.
Condition at Hatching
Long, white down covering the back; eyes open.
Nest Description

The male builds a nest platform from long sticks and twigs before pairing up with a female, and then both members of the pair may collaborate to complete the nest, though the male sometimes finishes it himself. The nest is up to 3 feet across and 1 foot deep. It is lined with pliable plant material that dries to form a cup structure. They don’t typically reuse nests from year to year.

Nest Placement

Tree

Males choose the display areas, where nests are later constructed. The nest itself is up to 100 feet off the ground, often over water, usually in or near the top of a shrub or tree such as a redwood, tamarisk, live oak, eastern redcedar, yaupon holly, wax myrtle, mangrove, Australian pine, buttonwood, Brazilian pepper, black willow, or privet. Great Egrets occasionally nest on the ground or on artificial platforms.

Behavior


Stalking

The Great Egret walks with its neck extended and its wings held close to its body. In flight, it is graceful and buoyant, with its neck tucked back against its shoulders and its legs trailing behind. Great Egrets form monogamous pairs each breeding season, though it’s not known whether the pair bond lasts through multiple years. Early in the breeding season adults grow long plumes on their backs, which they raise in courtship displays. Males perform most of the displays, which can involve preening the wings, ducking the head, holding and shaking twigs in the bill, and stretching the neck. Nestlings compete fiercely with each other, and dominant chicks sometimes end up stabbing the youngest siblings to death. The chicks also threaten and attack intruders.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Great Egret populations increased acorss most of their range from 1966 to 2010 according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, though there appears to have been a decline in Canadian populations. More than 95 percent of the Great Egrets in North America were killed for their plumes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Plume-hunting was banned, for the most part, around 1910, and Great Egret populations quickly began to recover. Since the 1930s, the egrets have had to contend with major habitat loss and degradation, as well as threats like contaminated runoff from farm fields or sewage treatment. However, their populations appear stable. Compared to other egrets and herons, Great Egrets seem to be unfazed by habitat loss on a localized scale, even in extremely altered landscapes like the Everglades. Since Great Egrets are large, very mobile birds with flexible habitat preferences, environmental changes may be affecting them at a larger scale that has yet to be studied.

Credits

Range Map Help

Great Egret Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to medium-distance migrant. Most Great Egrets move south for winter, traveling as far as the West Indies or southern Central America. They migrate by day in small flocks. During mild years, Great Egrets may stay as far north as Massachusetts. Individuals from the southern U.S. may not migrate at all. In late summer and fall, Great Egrets range widely over the continent.

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.