Species: Great egret
Scientific name: Ardea alba
Nicknames: Common egret, American egret, white egret
Claim to fame: Great egrets are the long-beaked, showy white birds that are occasionally seen in spring and summer at wetland areas throughout Missouri. They can also be seen, on occasion, in autumn and spring when migrants are flying through this region to other parts of their summer breeding range. The great egret is the symbol of the National Audubon Society.
Species status: Habitat destruction and 19th-century hunting have hurt great egret populations in many parts of the country. The large white bird is currently classified as a species of concern in Missouri.
First discovered: The first scientific description of the great egret was written by the famed naturalist Carl Linnaeus in 1758. The bird became the target of in the 19th century when its long white feathery plumes became a highly desired component of women’s hats and other wardrobe apparel. “Plume hunters” decimated the population of the once-abundant bird throughout the country until the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918 ended to this type of feather collection.
Family matters: Great egrets belong to the Ardeidae family of birds; a group more commonly known as the herons. Most members of this family are medium-sized to large wading birds with long necks and spear-like beaks.
Length: 39 inches (wingspan of almost five feet)
Diet: Great egrets feeds on fish, frogs, snakes and crayfish. They hunt alone, stalking their prey in shallow wading areas much as the great blue heron does.
Weight: up to two pounds
Distinguishing characteristics: Great egrets are large, all-white birds with a yellow bill and black legs. During the breeding season, the normally yellow bill may appear to be more of an orange color and the long feather plumes extend from the back to beyond the tail. Great egrets utter a loud, low-pitched hoarse croak. (Some people mistake snowy egrets for great egrets, but snowy egrets are smaller and have black bills, black legs and yellow feet.)
Life span: 15 years
Habitat: Shallow ponds, marshy areas, wetland areas
Life cycle: The great egret’s breeding season begins in mid-April. A single clutch of four to five greenish-blue eggs are laid in a large nest built of sticks and lined with plant material. Nest-building is normally started by the male, who then brings materials to the female for her to finish construction. Great egrets are colony nesters and can often be found nesting with other species of herons. A typical great egret nest consists of three eggs which hatch in 23 to 24 days. When young are born, they are virtually helpless. After about three weeks, the young egrets leave the nest and walk among the nearby branches, returning to the nest to be fed. They soon begin to be fed away from the nest and usually begin taking short flights 35 to 40 days after hatching. After the young leave the nest, the adults disperse for the summer. Although the central U.S. is part of the great egret’s summer nesting range, the annual instances of egrets nesting in Missouri are uncommon. Sometimes a few pairs of great egrets will appear in a breeding colony of great blue herons.