Meet The Egret Family

Let me introduce you to the egret family. They are rare in northeastern United States. Great egrets do migrate through New York to get to their summer feeding grounds in Canada. As I remember, they have been seen at Dunkirk Harbor, Fish Hatchery Road in Chautauqua Township, and Jamestown Audubon. Snowy egrets are just plain rare here. The reddish egret does live here year round on the Atlantic coast as far north as Cape Cod. The little egret is rarely seen here, period. The last one is the cattle egret. Also rare in our area, it summers on the Atlantic coast. What food do these birds like? Great egrets like marshes and mud for catching insects, crayfish, fish, snakes, frogs, mice and sometimes small birds. Some vegetation is also consumed.

Let’s compare the great egret with the great blue heron, since they are close cousins, so to speak. The great blue heron is larger, 46 inches, than the great egret, 39 inches tall. In a marsh, the egret is easier to spot, because of its brilliant white color.

Compared to the great blue herons, the egrets are more aggressive. The two do hang out in the same habitats, but do not compete with each other for rookery space or food.

When the great egret hunts, it either holds its neck straight out in front or curved a little bit. Very slowly it walks through the water and sometimes flutters a little bit. Compared to the great blues, this bird also feeds alone or in small groups. The difference is the great blue only hunts in the daytime and the roosts at night.

Another difference is that the great blue just saunters along or stands perfectly still before the kill. The great egret hops, flies after insects and pounces on the food from the shore.

Here are two of its unusual behaviors. It will actually jump over other feeding waterfowl to get to food first, and it hovers over the water – maybe to find fish. I would like to witness that behavior.

Mostly great egrets commiserate with other herons and egrets, when they feed and nest, in rookeries. Other times they might follow mergansers, cormorants and white ibises. Those birds would stir up the bottom of bodies of water, so the egrets would take advantage of that. They have been known to follow cattle egrets and steal their food as the latter follow cattle in the fields.

In the spring, northern great egrets come to their breeding areas in the middle of April, about the same time of the great blue. At the beginning of this period, the hormones of the great egrets change. That results in turning the bills orange and the lores yellowish-green. If you observe egrets whose bills stay yellow all season, those are probably first-year birds, which do not breed until their second year.

As a reminder, the lores are between the eyes and the bases of the bills. Both males and females develop white, flowing plumes. Before laws stopped the practice, hunters would kill the birds for those plumes and sell them to decorate women’s hats. That was a very sad time for birds. The Audubon Society helped stop the practice.

Most of these birds return yearly to the same rookery. The male claims a nest site, stands on or near it. He fans his plumes and sways from side to side. His 17 courtship displays include vertical neck-stretches, bill snapping, bowing and twig shaking. Both mates gather and place sticks for the nest.

There is a lot more information about the great egret in John Eastman’s Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh.