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.Back to top
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.Back to top
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.
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.
|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.|
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.Back to top
Great Egret populations increased across most of their range from 1966 to 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, though there appears to have been a decline in Canadian populations. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan estimates that there are over 180,000 breeding birds on the continent, and rates them at least a 5 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Great Egret is not listed on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. More than 95% 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.Back to top
Kushlan, J. A., M. J. Steinkamp, K. C. Parsons, J. Capp, M. A. Cruz, M. Coulter, I. Davidson, L. Dickson, N. Edelson, R. Elliott, R. M. Erwin, S. Hatch, S. Kress, R. Milko, S. Miller, K. Mills, R. Paul, R. Phillips, J. E. Saliva, W. Sydeman, J. Trapp, J. Wheeler and K. Wohl (2002). Waterbird conservation for the Americas: The North American waterbird conservation plan, version 1. Washington, DC, USA.
Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2019). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 1019 Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2019.
McCrimmon Jr., Donald A., John C. Ogden and G. Thomas Bancroft. (2011). Great Egret (Ardea alba), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.
North American Bird Conservation Initiative. (2014). The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.
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Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.