The Great Egret – A “Founder” of the National Audubon Society

Photo of the Week

The great (white) egret is probably familiar to most people in the United States. They can be seen in and around marshes, both salt and freshwater; in pastures and open fields; and along edges of ponds and lakes. It is here that they hunt—slowly and deliberately—for small fish, frogs, snakes and insects.

A Dazzling White Great Egret hunting in a pond near a major shopping center.

A Dazzling White Great Egret hunting in a pond near a major shopping center.

During the late 1800, these majestic white birds were hunted nearly to extinction for their bright white plumage prized for adornment for ladies’ fashions. A conservation movement to protect the egrets was also, in part, the motivation to establish the National Audubon Society, which also explains why an image of the egret in flight is the symbol of the society.

Subspecies of the great egret can be found around the world. In North America, they are common throughout the Sun Belt of the United States and south. Today, the biggest threat to a thriving egret population is loss of suitable habitat. Still, while they are protected, they are not endangered and are seen frequently, even in urban and suburban areas where there is suitable habitat. The photo above was taken on the edge of a pond adjacent to a large shopping mall in South Carolina.

An adult egret—male and female are essentially the same in appearance—can stand more than three feet tall with a wingspan of up to five-and-a-half feet. They fly in typical heron style with their necks retracted into an S-shape. Storks fly with their necks out-stretched straight. Egret flight is characterized by slow, strong downbeats at a rate of about two strokes per second.

There are other white herons. The smaller cattle egret is much smaller, and feeds in flocks on open pastures. There is a white variant of the great blue heron in the Gulf Coast regions, but the great egret is the only one with a bright yellow bill and black legs.

They breed in colonies that gather in trees along the edges of marshes and lakes near easy access to both food and nest building materials. Nests are large, crude structures made from tree branches and some dried marsh grass. They may share their nesting areas with other species of birds that prefer the same nesting habitat.

For those who wish to know:
Family: Ardeidae (Herons)
Sub Family: Pelecaniformes (More closely related to pelicans and (egrets) than storks)
Genus and Species: Ardea alba

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