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Reddish Egret Life History

Habitat

Habitat Marshes

Reddish Egrets forage around salt flats, lagoons, and human-made salt pans used for making table salt. They can occasionally be found at freshwater ponds, but most of their foraging is in tidal environments, especially at small depressions in inlets and passes (locally called “cat’s-eye ponds”), reefs and banks along barrier islands and cays, mangrove flats, lagoon systems, and saltmarshes. In Texas, where storms may wash saltwater into ponds (“overwash deltas”) on barrier islands, Reddish Egrets often hunt fish trapped in these temporary wetlands. Water depth is normally about 2–6 inches, often with mats of algae. For nesting, Reddish Egrets usually nest in taller vegetation such as mangroves, but also nest in lower beach vegetation such as goldenrod if trees are not available.

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Food

Food Fish

Reddish Egrets eat primarily small, minnowlike fish; shrimp and crab are less common prey items. They are active, animated foragers and employ their wings frequently when hunting, either opening the wings briefly to startle prey, or by keeping the wings extended and open, probably to coax prey to take shelter in the shade of the wings. They also extend their wings fully over the head and hunt beneath the umbrella they create. This “canopy feeding” also attracts prey to a shaded environment and permits the egret to see prey clearly, without sun glare.

Reddish Egrets also use their feet to stir up sediment and flush prey, sometimes even doing this while in flight (“hover-stirring”). Occasionally they may hunt slowly and methodically, as other egrets and herons do.

Prey include sheepshead minnow, sailfin molly, pinfish, striped mullet, various killifish, and tidewater silverside. Reddish Egrets normally hunt alone, but when small fish become concentrated in drying pools or creeks, they often join large assemblages of waterbirds (herons, egrets, pelicans, terns, ibises, and spoonbills) to feed.

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Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest Tree

Male and female select the actual nest site together, checking various branches and twigs by shaking them, probably as a communicative display more than an engineering test. The nest is usually located near the male’s display site. Nests may be on bare ground or in short scrub, but are typically set in trees, often mangroves, well above ground and usually over water. Nests are often within mixed-species colonies of other waders (herons, egrets, ibis).

Nest Description

Both sexes help with nest building. The male usually gathers twigs and the female usually puts them in place, though roles can be reversed. The nest is a flat platform of twigs and sticks, lined with grasses and forbs. Some nests may be reused or recycled from previous nestings (or nests abandoned by other species, such as Double-crested Cormorant). Nests measure on average about 23 inches across and 9 inches high, with the interior depression about 11 inches across and 3.5 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:3-6 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:1.8-2.2 in (4.65-5.56 cm)
Egg Width:1.4-1.6 in (3.6-4.17 cm)
Incubation Period:21-36 days
Nestling Period:28-35 days
Egg Description:

Pale bluish green.

Condition at Hatching:

Sparsely covered in down but alert and able to leave the nest soon after hatching.

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Behavior

Behavior Stalking

Reddish Egrets appear to be monogamous in their mating system, though mating outside the pair bond has been reported. Pairs typically form in April. Males begin courtship by displaying while standing at a potential nest site. He stretches the neck upward and back, erecting his head and neck feathers. With the arrival of an interested female, a male usually begins a head-toss display, which the female may reciprocate, or he moves his head side to side, then snaps his bill together loudly. One or both birds may perform a circular flight around this spot, and they also pursue each other in flight during courtship and make brief flights in which they leapfrog the perched partner.

During nest-building, pairs engage in elaborate pair-bonding displays, bowing and stretching, erecting neck feathers, and making clattering sounds with their bills. These greeting diplays continue through the chick-rearing weeks. Reddish Egrets defend only a small area around the nest. Males that invade the territory of a pair are likely to be met with raised crests, raised tails, and even the fluffing of all body feathers, very similar to the male’s courtship behavior. If the threat display is unheeded, the territorial male chases the intruder, jabbing with his bill or beating at it with his wings.

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Conservation

Conservation Restricted Range

Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 15,000, with an estimated 2,400 breeding in the U.S. The group rates the Reddish Egret a 15 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and includes it on the Yellow Watch List for species with restricted ranges. The species is most at risk from global climate change, which brings more frequent and stronger tropical storms (causing direct mortality as well as habitat destruction). As is true for many colonial waterbirds, Reddish Egret populations decline when coastal habitats are developed and destroyed. Disturbance at nesting colonies, disturbance in foraging areas, and in some cases hunting also reduce their populations.

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Credits

Lowther, Peter E. and Richard T. Paul. (2002). Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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