Snowy Egret - Great White Egret
The snowy egret, said the famous amateur ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent in his multi-volume Life Histories of North American Birds, which he published between 1910 and the 1960’s, “is the most charming of all our marsh birds.” He said, “It seems conscious of its beauty and likes to show off its charms for the benefit of its loved ones.”
The snowy egret (Egretta thula for the science minded) has feathers so perfectly white that it almost seems to glow in the light of a full moon. It stands about two feet in height. It weighs just under a pound. It has a wingspan of three to four feet. An adult snowy egret has a dagger-like black beak, yellowish eyes, long and slender black legs and distinctive yellow to orange feet (“golden slippers,” Roger Tory Peterson called them). An immature bird looks similar to the adult, but its beak is more pale, and its legs are lighter, with a streak of yellow along the backs.
In celebration of the nesting seasons, the snowy egret (sometimes just called a “snowy”) puts on its full-feathered finery, as if dressing for the royal ball. It develops diaphanous plumes along its crest, back, neck and breast, with those along the crest and back curving gracefully upward and those along the breast and neck holding straight. “The display of plumes…” said Bent, “is part of the courtship performance, where it is seen at its best, but it also used all through the breeding season as a greeting to its mate or its young. In the full display the body is bent forward and downward, the neck is held in a graceful curve, the feathers of the head are raised in a vertical crest, the breast plumes are spread forward and downward, the wings are partially open and raised and the plumes of the back are elevated and spread, with their curving tips waving in the air.”
Geographic Range and Habitat
Although primarily a bird of our Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the snowy egret has managed to find a home across much of the United States. It breeds along the coastlines in the estuarine areas and near river mouths, and inland near stream systems, lakes and ponds. It breeds in our Southwest in the riverine areas, impoundments and holding ponds. Some snowy egrets hold permanent residence in the warmer parts of its range. Others, which breed in more northern areas, migrate for the winter into the lower United States southward into Mexico, across the Caribbean and deep into South America. “As with most herons,” the Arizona Game and Fish Department said on its Internet site, “the post-breeding dispersing snowies may show up almost anywhere.” Like other herons, the bird typically forages in the shallows or on nearby land, and it builds its nest near the waters edge.
The Indiscriminate Diner
The snowy egret, a carnivore that feeds primarily in the early morning and late afternoon, has perfected a wide range of foraging behaviors, and, like a teenage boy, it has developed a taste for a broad menu of culinary delightsthat is, almost anything that’s not nailed down.
Stalking in the shallows, often in collusion with other snowies, it may shuffle its “golden slippers” to flush out prey, which it then runs down as the meal attempts to flee. On a chilly morning, as Michael Harwood said in Moments of Discovery: Adventures with American Birds, the snowy egret may “actually stir the bottom with vibrating motions of [its] feet,” waking up its “cold and torpid prey.” Alternatively it may lie in wait, perfectly still, then ambush victims that happen to swim or drift past. It may hunt by flying just above the water, its yellow feet almost skimming the surface, then dropping suddenly, like a demon from the sky, on unsuspecting prey. According to the Animal Diversity Web Internet site, the snowy egret will take, not only fish, but also shrimp, crayfish, snails, frogs and aquatic insects.
Foraging on land, along with others of its kind, the snowy egret may stalk slowly, walk rapidly, run or hop to chase down its prey. It may even hang around domestic livestock, waiting for the animals to stir up its prey. Its land diet may include lizards, snakes, toads, earthworms and terrestrial insects.
Raising a Family
The snowy egret, which reaches sexual maturity at one to two years of age, begins preparations in the spring to raise a family. Dressed in their fancy seasonal plumage, males and females congregate near roosting and nesting sites, beginning an elaborate ritual of courtship.
The male, says the Animal Diversity Web Internet site, begins to show off, much like a teenage boy, doing his best to attract a female. So charged that his feet change from yellow to reddish orange, he flies in fancy patterns. He croons in a cracking, croaking voice. He points his bill toward heaven and pumps up and down. He quarrels with male competitors. “Standing erect with wings spread and crest raised,” said Bent, “they spar with half open beaks or strike heavy blows with their wings, until one has enough and retires.”
Somehow, with this perfectly boorish behavior, the male snowy egret manages to attract a female (whose judgment, at that point, we might question), and the two begin their courtship. Perched in the branches of a tree, they sigh romantically, according to John James Audubon. They stretch high on their legs, curving their necks and strutting as they raise their crests. On the ground, in a kind of ethereal plume dance, they pass each other repeatedly, with gracethe male with passion, the female with coyness.
The male selects a nesting site, usually close to his male buddies with whom he scuffled earlier. Both he and his mate set about building their nest, either in a tree or shrub or on the ground. “The male collects the materials and the female does the constructing,” according to the United States Geological Survey Internet site. Little concerned about esthetics or architecture, they produce, in effect, a crude nesting platform of small sticks, twigs and reeds. In their finished nest, totally lacking romantic sighs, posturing or ceremony, they couple. This tender encounter takes perhaps 10 seconds. They are now ready to produce their only offspring for the entire year.
With the male guarding their nest, the female will lay three to five bluish green, inch- and a half-long eggs over several days, usually one egg every other day. Taking turns, both parents incubate the eggs for the next three to three and one half weeks, until their entire brood has hatched. Meticulous housekeepers, the parents remove the eggshells, and they continually clean up after their messy young.
Concerned and caring parents, they brood their naked, blind and helpless hatchlings continuously for the first couple of weeks. They protect them continuously in the event of a storm. They use their wings to shade them from the hot summer sun. The parents feed their young by regurgitating food directly into the clamoring mouths or into the nests. “Either the father or the mother watches the youngsters constantly,” said Bent, “and when the absent mate returns they caress and coo, being a most loving pair, as if they had not seen each other for a week.” The returning bird performs an elaborate greeting ceremony, utilizing its plumes to reassure its mate and the young that it is not an unknown intruder. The rapidly growing young birds, their flight feathers erupting, move into the branches beside their nest within three to four weeks after hatching. They stretch their wings, responding to the call to take flight. Although they return in the evening to their nurturing parents for several days, they soon will take their departure, leaving home for good.
For all their parents loving care, the young snowy egrets face daunting odds during their first year, with as many as three quarters dying due to predation, starvation, accident, exposure or parasitism. Those that do survive the first year may live for as long as 15 years or more. According to the Animal Diversity Web Internet site, “The oldest egret was recorded in Utah and lived 22 years, 10 months.”
The Snowy Egret’s Outlook, and Our Own
In its elegant plumed dress, the snowy egret the “most charming of all our marsh birds” became the envy of late 19th and early 20th century American women, who yearned to adorn themselves in the ephemeral feathers so they could, I guess, look like herons. The snowy egret’s plumes, sold into the fashion industry at commercial auction houses, fetched $32 to $80 per ounce according to the article “Plume Trade,” published in 1988 by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin and Darryl Wheye. Gold, by comparison, sold for about $16 per ounce.
Snowy egret rookeries became scenes of bloody slaughters, the work of the plume hunters, who hoped to capitalize on the trade. A. H. E. Mattingley, quoted by Bent, reported on what he found at one rookery: “There, strewn on the floating water weed, and also on adjacent logs, were at least 50 carcasses of large white and smaller plumed egrets: nearly one third of the rookery, perhaps more: the birds having been shot off their nests containing young. What a holocaust! Plundered for their plumes. What a monument of human callousness! There were 50 birds ruthlessly destroyed, besides their young (about 200) left to die of starvation! This last fact was betokened by at least 70 carcasses of the nestlings, which had become so weak that their legs had refused to support them and they had fallen from the nests into the water below…” The snowy egret faced extinction by 1918, when it finally came under the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which made plume hunting illegal.
“…the species bounced back and expanded into new areas during the mid-20th century,” said the National Audubon Society in its Internet site. “Breeding Bird Surveys and Christmas Bird Counts show overall increases; however, since the late-20th century, Snowy Egret populations have experienced considerable flux, suggesting that the species is vulnerable to environmental threats such as the destruction of coastal wetlands, pollution, and competition with other bird species.”
In spite of the latest threats, the snowy egret has become an American symbol of successful preservation, even making an appearance on a 37-cent postage stamp in October of 2003. Given its stature, I hope that it would be willing to accompany me if I am ever invited to escort a bird to a royal ball.
The snowy egret resembles the great egret, another pure white wading bird, but is only about half as large. Moreover, the mature snowy egret has a dark bill, dark legs and yellowish to orange feet while the mature great egret has a yellowish bill and slate-colored legs and feet. While the great egret occupies a greater range, the two species occupy similar habitats. Both prey on similar species, although the great egret often aggressively steals food from smaller herons.
Both perform elaborate courtship rituals in the spring, build crude nests of sticks and produce a clutch of several eggs. They incubate their clutches for roughly three and a half weeks, until hatching. They nurture their nestlings, feeding them regurgitated food, for some two or three weeks, until their young fledge and leave the nest.
Both species live for 15 years or more, provided they survive the hazards raised by predators such as raccoons, crows and turkey vultures during their first couple of years, until they reach sexual maturity. Both suffered slaughter at the hands of the plume hunters in the late 19th and early 20 centuries and recovered under the protection of laws.
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