Great Egret

Common name: Great Egret
Class: Aves
Order: Ciconiiformes
Family: Ardeidae
Genus: Ardea
Species: Ardea alba

photo M. Noonan


Taxonomy/ Description


Great Egrets are less then 1 meter long from bill to tail, 1 meter tall, have a wingspan of about 1.5 meters, and weigh about 912 to 1140 grams. On average, males are larger than females. Great egrets are completely white with a long yellow bill and dark gray legs. During flight their neck is usually in an “S” shaped curve. They are very elegant birds with plumage resembling lace.

 

photo M. Noonan
 


Habitat/ Diet


Great egrets are found in North America as far south as Texas, the Gulf coast states, and Florida up the Atlantic coast to Maine and southern Canada, and west to the Great Lakes. The ideal location for great egrets is near any form of water; streams, lakes, ponds, mud flats, saltwater and freshwater marshes are inhabited by this beautiful bird. Wooded swamps and wetlands are the preferred location for great egrets.


Great egrets usually feed on smaller aquatic and terrestrial insects and vertebrates. Wading slowly through the water, they are extremely successful at striking and catching fish or insects. Studies found that, standing still, great egrets were able to ingest more prey of intermediate size than if they moved around. This suggests that their goal is not to catch the largest quantity of food, but to catch high quality food.

 

photo M. Noonan



Behavior/ Reproduction
 

Great egrets are very ground- oriented when it comes to courtship, nesting and feeding. At dusk, great egrets gather from surrounding areas to form communal roosts. Post-breeding dispersal is very common among great egrets. After the young hatch, they accompany the adults on long journeys. Many heron species rob other species in order to obtain more food. Great egrets steal a very high percentage of their food from other, smaller herons. They also fight for food within their own brood. It has been found that great egrets are highly aggressive in many situations even when food is not limited.


Great egrets are seasonally monogamous animals. Male egrets are responsible for selecting a territory and performing a series of rituals in order to attract a female. Mating occurs within the males’ territory. Typically, great egret nests are built with other heron nests in a colony in wetlands and wooded swamps. Nests are a flimsy platform constructed of sticks, twigs, and stems built as high as possible. Great egret eggs are a pale greenish blue, and are incubated by both the male and female for about 23 to 24 days. The young usually fledge 2-3 weeks after hatching. Great egrets are capable of reproducing after two years and raise one brood per year. The breeding season begins mid-April.

Where to see them in WNY

 

One good place to find the Great egret is on the Swallow Hollow Trail at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. From the parking lot, take the trail heading to the left. Be sure to begin looking once you reach the earthen dike; emergent marshes like this one are great habitats for these birds.

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