Great Egret, Ardea alba

The Great Egret (Ardea alba), also known as the Great White Egret, Large Egret, Great White Heron or Common Egret, is a large and widely distributed egret. Dispersed across most of the tropical and warmer temperate regions throughout the world, in southern Europe it’s rather localized. In North America it’s more widely distributed, and it’s everywhere across the Sun Belt of the United States and in the rainforests of South America. It’s occasionally confused with the Great White Heron of the Caribbean, which is a white morph of the closely related Great Blue Heron. Note, however, that the name Great White Heron has occasionally been used in reference to the Great Egret.

It’s a large heron with all-white plumage. Standing up to about 3.3 ft tall, this species can measure 31 to 41 inches in length and have a wingspan of 52 to 67 inches. Their body mass can range from 1.5 to 3.3 pounds, with the average being 2.2 pounds. Thus, it is only slightly smaller than the Great Blue or Grey Heron. Apart from their size, the Great Egret can be distinguished from other white egrets by its yellow bill and black feet and legs, though the bill may become darker and the lower legs lighter during the breeding season. In their breeding plumage, delicate ornamental feathers are borne on the back. The males and females are identical in appearance; the juveniles look like non-breeding adults. Differentiated from the Intermediate Egret by the gape, which extends well beyond the back of the eye in case of the Great Egret, but it ends just behind the eye in case of the Intermediate Egret. It’s a common species, normally easily seen.

Its flight is slow, with its neck retracted. This is a trait of herons and bitterns, and distinguishes them from cranes, storks, spoonbills and ibises, which extend their necks while in flight.

The Great Egret is not usually a vocal bird; at breeding colonies, however, it frequently gives a loud croaking cuk cuk cuk.

Like all egrets, it belongs to the heron family called Ardeidae. Customarily classified with the storks in the Ciconiiformes, the Ardeidae are closer relatives of pelicans and belong in the Pelecaniformes instead. The Great Egret – unlike typical egrets – doesn’t belong to the genus Egretta, but together with the great herons is placed today in Ardea. In the past, however, it was occasionally placed in Egretta or separated in a monotypic genus Casmerodius.

There are four accepted subspecies in various parts of the world, which differ but little. Differences are bare part coloration during the breeding season and size; the largest A. a. modesta from Asia and Australasia some taxonomists consider to be a full species, the Eastern Great Egret. Ardea alba alba can be found in Europe. Ardea alba egretta can be found in the Americas. Ardea alba melanorhynchos can be found in Africa. Ardea alba modesta can be found in India, Southeast Asia and Oceania.

The Great Egret is partly migratory, with northern hemisphere birds moving south from areas with cold winters. It breeds in colonies in trees near large lakes with reed beds or other broad wetlands. Its bulky nest consists of sticks.

It’s generally a very successful species with a large and still expanding range. In North America, large numbers of Great Egrets were killed around the end of the 19th century so that their plumes could be utilized to decorate hats. Numbers have since recovered as a result of conservation procedures. Its range has stretched out as far north as southern Canada. However, in some parts of the southern United States, its numbers have declined because of habitat loss. Nevertheless, it adapts well to human habitation and can be readily seen near wetlands and bodies of water in suburban and urban locations. In 1953, the Great Egret in flight was chosen as the symbol of the National Audubon Society, which was created in part to prevent the killing of birds for their feathers.

This bird is one of the species to which the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) applies.

On the 22nd of May, 2012, it was announced a pair of Great Egrets were nesting in the UK for the first time at the Shapwick Heath nature reserve in Somerset. The species is a rare visitor to the UK and Ben Aviss of the BBC stated that the news could mean the UK’s first Great Egret colony is recognized. The following week, Kevin Anderson of Natural England confirmed a Great Egret chick had hatched, making it a new breeding bird record for the United Kingdom.

It feeds in shallow waters or drier habitats, mainly on fish, small mammals and frogs, and sometimes small reptiles and insects, spearing them with its long and sharp bill most of the time by standing still and allowing the prey to come within its striking distance. It will frequently wait motionless for its prey, or slowly stalk its victim.

This bird is depicted on the reverse side of a 5-Brazillian reais banknote. White Egrets is the title of Saint Lucian Poet Derek Walcott’s fourteenth compilation of poems. It is also the symbol of the National Audubon Society. The name of respected Shariputra, one of the Buddha’s best known followers, signifies the son of the egret; it is believed that his mother had eyes like a great egret.

Image Caption: Eastern Great Egret with fish. Credit: Googie Man/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)