- Size: 39” long, 51” wingspan.
- Color: white feathers, black legs, yellow bill.
- Habitat: wetlands like tidal creeks, marshes, swamps, streams, and rivers.
- Where and when to observe: spring through summer in appropriate habitat.
The Great Egret is a stately, spectacular white wading bird measuring 39” long, with broad wings that reach to a 51” wingspan, black legs and a thin, yellow bill. Its long neck takes on a deep curve when in flight, a posture also seen when on land when the neck is not outstretched to its full — and impressive — length. Despite such good looks, their voice is hardly as melodious as one might hope, more like a series of deep, gravelly croaks.
Frequently seen in our area along wetlands like tidal creeks, marshes, swamps, streams, and rivers, Great Egrets quietly stalk their prey in the water. Standing motionless, the head suddenly juts forward into the water nabbing fish, invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, birds or even small mammals.
Great Egrets gather in loose flocks, wintering from New Jersey southward to Central and South America. They are regular visitors to New York City from spring through fall.
Arrival of spring also marks the breeding season. Egrets are communal nesters, and build loosely constructed twig nests in trees and shrubs. The monogamous pair incubates one brood of 1-6 light blue or bluish green eggs for 23-26 days. The semi-altricial chicks are still dependent on parents for food and warmth, but fledge in 42-49 days.
The Great Egret’s beauty was nearly its demise. The birds were nearly hunted to extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as plume hunters collected the stunning feathers for fashionable hats. But the species’ plight thankfully did not go unnoticed and became the impetus behind the conservation movement that, along with many other achievements, led to the establishment of the National Audubon Society, which uses the Great Egret as its symbol.
Though populations began to rebound by the mid-20th century, great egrets were again at risk from the pesticide DDT. Today, with plume hunters and DDT no longer an issue, populations are stable once again. Nevertheless, Great Egrets, like so many other species, depend on our quickly disappearing wetlands for food, shelter and a place to raise their young.
Let’s work together to protect this vital habitat so that we can admire this majestic bird for years to come!
- All About Birds: Great Egret by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology accessed on 1/16/09 at: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Egret/id/ac
- The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye, published 1988 by Simon and Schuster.
- The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley, published 2000 by Chanticleer Press.
- The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior edited by Chris Elphick, John B. Dunning, Jr., and David Allen Sibley, published 2001 by Chanticleer Press.
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