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Great Egret Rising

Wednesday 13 January 2021

With its all white plumage that can often reach a meter in height, the Great Egret is a sight to behold as it soars up in to the sky.  Considered safe, only a century ago the species was highly threatened. Read on to discover how and why the species was able to make a dramatic come back.

Do you know, however, how to distinguish the Great Egret from other egrets and herons?  Well, apart from its sheers size, look out for its yellow bill and black legs – always a give away!

One of the best things about the Great Egret is that if you know where to go and look for it then it is usually easily seen – and there is nothing quite as exhilarating as watching these birds fly, hunt and interact with their families.

When you do find them they are easy to spot – especially when in flight – as their wingspan can stretch up to an amazing 85 inches, making it only a little smaller than the Great Blue Heron.  As these birds are in possession of such a large wingspan it is then unsurprising to discover that they can be found in most of the temperate and tropical regions of the world.

There are four sub-species and the first can be seen in Europe, although it is restricted to the southern areas. In North America the distribution of another sub-species is wider – you will see them all over the sun belt of the United States.  They can also be seen in the tropical rainforests of South America. A third sub-species adheres to the African continent while the fourth and last extends over India, Asia and Oceania.

Although the four sub-species are found the world over the Great Egret is not in any particular hurry to get anywhere and it is noted for its slow, elegant flight. In flight it retracts its neck – deliberately taking its time – looking unintentionally as if it is about to perform the first movement of the Egyptian Sand Dance. Again, if you want to distinguish an egret from a crane or a stork, look for the retracted neck in flight.

Despite its great wing span the Great Egret is only partly migratory – which may make you wonder why it has developed such long wings in the first place.  In the northern hemisphere the birds start to move in a southerly direction at the onset of winter, especially cold ones. 

The bird breeds in colonies – always in trees close to lakes with beds of reeds or in wetlands.  Over the course of several days the breeding pair will complete a bulky stick nest in which to rear their young.  The female will lay up to five eggs but rarely, if ever, do they all survive. Aggression is commonplace among nestlings and the larger ones will often kill their smaller siblings to gain the upper hand – and the lion’s share of the food the parents bring back to the nest.

If it survives the period of internecine murder and bickering the Great Egret does, however, live to a ripe old age – for birds. The record for longevity for monitored Great Egrets is 23 years old.

The bird feeds on fish, frogs, reptiles and insects - hunting in the shallow waters or along the water’s edge. They spear their prey with their long, sharp beaks.  Sometimes they stalk their prey but often they stand stock still, letting lunch come to them.  Then, with a single quick strike with that bill, their prey does not know what has hit them.

Even smaller mammals, such as this unfortunate gopher, make a meal for the Great Egret. 

Although the Great Egret is not considered endangered there has been at least one period in time when they were threatened.  You need not guess which species threatened them – inevitably it was our own.  At the end of the nineteenth century the feathers of large birds were used to decorate the hats of ladies.

As a result a large number were killed for their plumage (they are not considered edible) and the species was threatened as a result of what I call the humanity vanity factor. What made matters worse was the fact that they were often hunted after they had developed their fine breeding plumage (see above). This not only killed and would-be parents but ensured a smaller ensuing generation. No wonder numbers fell dramatically.

The fashion lasted only a decade or so and since then the numbers of Great Egrets have recovered – with a number of conservation measures put in place to protect them.  Indeed, they are sometimes even spotted in southern Canada. 

There has been a decline in numbers in some parts of the southern United States, mostly due to the loss of their natural habitat to development.  Yet even then there is some hope as they seem to adapt well to suburban life and they are often seen around wetlands in or near urban areas.

The Great Egret’s future looks safe for now, then. If you can, take the opportunity one day to see them spread their graceful wings and fly or slowly, poised and elegant, stalk their prey – there is nothing quite like it.

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