Cross Timbers Wildlife News
Great Egrets Are Grrrrrrreat
Jim Dillard, Wildlife Biologist, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, Mineral Wells
From time immemorial, man has marveled at the beauty of birds and their feathery attire. Many cultures incorporated certain species of birds or their feathers into their religion, folklore and traditions. Bird feathers were used by aboriginal cultures to decorate clothing, drums, pipes and lances. Down feathers put into garments or bedding provided warmth and insulation from the cold. Eagle feathers were often used to represent power or recognize some outstanding deed.
Even in our own culture, we only have to look back to the turn of the Twentieth Century to be aware of our own fascination with bird feathers. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, feathers on women’s hats were in vogue. Ladies that didn’t have a lavishly decorated hat with an assortment of feathery plumes just weren’t keeping up with the Joneses. Trendy bonnets were piled high with feathers, birds, fruit, flowers, furs, even mice and small reptiles. Women’s hats sported egret plumes, owl heads, sparrow wings, whole hummingbirds and even warblers, all in the name of fashion.
The demand for feathers was so great that commercial hunting for many species of herons and egrets became a very lucrative venture along the East Coast. Certain feathers were literally worth their weight in gold. The great egret (Ardea alba) was a prime target. Relentless, unregulated hunting in the wetlands along the Atlantic Coast almost wiped them out. Thankfully, an outcry from conservation groups resulted and laws were enacted to stop the slaughter. The Audubon Society formed during this time and used the great egret as their symbol to promote conservation of herons, egrets and their habitat. Today, great egret populations have recovered and fortunately ladies hat fashions have changed.
The great egret is also known as great white egret, American egret, common egret or angle bird. They’re cosmopolitan in distribution and inhabit wetlands and coastal estuaries in North and South America, Europe, Russia, Australia, Africa, India and Southeast Asia. In the United States, their breeding range appears to be spreading northward during recent years. The sight of one of these tall, long-necked and long-legged white wading birds here in Northcentral Texas is not all that uncommon these days. In Texas, most resident birds winter along the Gulf Coast.
Of all the other white egret species, great egrets are the largest. They stand over three feet tall, have five foot wingspans and a neck that is longer than their body. The long bill is yellow; their legs and unwebbed feet are gray to black. Although they look big, they weigh only about two pounds; males are slightly larger than females. During the breeding season, long feathery plumes (aigrettes) flow from the back to beyond their tail in both sexes and are used in elaborate courtship displays. Market hunters called great egrets “long whites” because of their highly sought after long, lacy aigrettes. Their call is a raspy croaking sound - cuk, cuk. In flight, they crook their neck in an open “S” shape.
By wading and stalking prey in shallow water, they hunt for food around the shoreline of freshwater streams, lakes, ponds and wetlands and in salt marshes along the coast. Flooded fields are also favorite feeding areas. They’ll defend small feeding territories form other egrets that venture too close for comfort. Great egrets are diurnal and may feed in loose groups, but for the most part are solitary and feed during the early morning and late afternoon (crepuscular). Unlike some other heron and egret species, they don’t feed at night. They may roost together with other heron and egret species at night.
Preferred food items include frogs, crayfish, snakes, snails, insects and fish. Small mammals are also at risk and can be gulped down whole. When prey is spotted, it’s quickly dispatched by a quick jab using their coiled neck and sharp bill. Indigestible “parts” are regurgitated as pellets. On the lower part of their neck, the esophagus and trachea actually curls behind the vertebra giving these organs the shortest course to the body. This also protects the neck from injuries during a strike at prey. They sometimes use their feet to stir up the water and force prey to move or expose their location – big mistake. There apparently is no honor among great egrets since they are known to steal food items from smaller birds.
Great egrets are colonial nesters and usually nest in rookeries with other heron and egret species. Their nests are built 10-40 feet high but may be located in low brush or cattails in marshes. The platform nest of loose sticks is built by the mated pair during April or May. A single clutch of 4-5 oval, greenish-blue eggs is incubated by both sexes for 23-26 days. Unlike most birds, great egrets begin egg incubation as soon as the first egg is laid, thus young don’t all hatch at the same time. Those that hatch first grow quicker and usually get most of the food. If food is in short supply, the stronger young may kill their weaker siblings. It’s the old “survival of the fittest” scenario for baby great egrets. Young are fed by regurgitation and leave the nest in three weeks. In six-seven weeks, they’re capable of flight and are off to feed and fend for themselves. Here in Northcentral Texas, I’ve seen great egrets nesting in rookeries of cattle egrets, little blue herons, night herons and snowy egrets, usually toward the center of these colonies and in the tallest trees.
With the enactment of laws to protect great egrets and other shorebird species that were near extinction due to exploitation, populations have recovered. In Texas, all heron and egret species are classified as protected species. But, there continues to be threats to their long-term well being as more and more of their wetland and nesting habitats are being lost to development and pollution. I’m sure the recent hurricanes along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts have taken their toll on many species of wildlife, including great egrets. Perhaps these “angle birds” can once again become a symbol for recovery and hope for those surviving this tragedy. They too have been through their own storms and came back from the brink to grace our beautiful land once again. Until next time – I’ll see you down the road and God Bless America!