A Very Good Hunter

Egrets do not swim and do not have webbed feet. They stalk through the shallow water of wetlands, streams, ponds and lakes in search of food. Great egrets are very good hunters, staying quite still until, with lightening-fast speed, they stab their prey with their spear-shaped bill. Their diet consists of the fish, frogs, crayfish, voles, aquatic insects, and other insects.

While my source material doesn’t include birds, I have personally observed great egrets taking birds that were nesting in low reeds and sedges in the salt marsh. Also from my observation, after some excellent stealth hunting the egret then faces the problem of getting the prey into its narrow bill and down its long slender neck.

I’ve often seen a great egret stab a fish or vole in its midsection, resulting in the prey being crosswise to the bird’s bill. At that point the hunter flips the would-be meal up in the air to realign it so that it may fit into its bill and down its throat. This activity usually takes many attempts and sometimes attracts an audience of the smaller snowy egrets or little blue herons hoping to steal the kill. When a bird is the catch, the egret has to deal with the bird’s flapping wings until succumbs from being crushed.

The Great Egret, Casmerodius Albus is one of our seasonal residents. Formerly know as the American egret, common egret, large egret or the great white heron, its official name in North America is now the Great Egret. It is the largest all-white bird in its family, Ardeinae. It runs from 35 to 41 inches in length, has a 55 inch wing span, and weighs about 2 pounds. It has a long straight yellow bill and very long black legs.

It is often confused with the white phase of the great blue heron, seen in Florida, which is somewhat larger and has greenish-yellow legs. The snowy egret, in our area, is also all-white but it is smaller than the great and has a black bill. The great egret and its relatives are from the order Ciconiiformes, which includes the wading birds that are associated with shallow water.

Generally great egrets are solitary hunters but they nest in colonies often near herons and other wading birds. The colonies are not permanent and after many years may be abandoned.

When it reaches sexual maturity, usually at 2 years, the male great egret announces his intentions to mate when he arrives in the heronry by picking a good nesting spot or taking over an old nest.

He begins to display his 30 to 50 extended back plumes, present only in mating season,
until one of the females in the area accepts his invitation and hops onto the branch next to him.
Sometimes he may drive her away after her first approach and continue to display. Eventually he allows her to remain on the nest and their mating ritual continues with plume displaying and raised wings.

Egrets make their nests with twigs and sticks, either collected from the ground or stolen from unoccupied nests. The male does most of the twig gathering, while the female manages the placement. Twig presentation continues even after the eggs have been laid, incubated and hatched. The nest is never left unattended because the stick material will be taken by other birds in the colony quickly, leaving nothing for the pair when it comes home. The nest is usually in a tree 20, or more, feet above ground and stretching out about 3 feet. The height of the nest is good protection from predators but sometimes it’s difficult for the long legged top heavy birds.

Both of the sexes look the same but the male is slightly larger.

In breeding plumage they both sport aigrettes, long plumes, which extend from their backs beyond their tails. It is these lovely plumes that almost caused the extinction of the great egrets in the early 20th century.

The feather plumes were in demand for millinery and the birds were over hunted. Market hunting was outlawed but unchecked wetland degradation and over development kept the great egret population from returning to its previous levels and legal protection was established.

The great egret is found on both coasts of North America as well as along the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley. Along the Atlantic Coast, great egrets breed in New England and Coastal New York. Non-breeding adult great egrets may wander further north than their breeding relatives in the summer. Winters are spent south of New Jersey.

For more information, visit Egret Page.

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