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Great Egret

Photo Credit: Terry Hartley

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Ardea alba

OTHER NAMES:     Common or American egret
 
DESCRIPTION: The great egret (Ardea alba) belongs to a large order of colonial wading birds (Order Ciconiiformes) which includes various species of herons, ibises, egrets and bitterns. The adult great egret is the largest white heron in the east. Adults range from 37 to 41 inches in height and are a snowy white except for black feet and legs, and a yellow, black tipped bill.  The wingspan of adults ranges from 52 to 57 inches. During breeding season, adults may display up to 50 long plumes (aigrettes) along the back. Similar species include the snowy egret and immature little blue heron – both of which are white but are smaller and have blackish bills instead of yellow. Sexes appear virtually indistinguishable. 
 
DISTRIBUTION: Great egrets breed in wooded swamps from the southeastern United States north to Tennessee but may wander as far north as Ontario to Maine during the summer months. Wintering birds may be found from South Carolina south to Texas. 
           
FEEDING HABITS: Feeds in a variety of wetlands including marshes, swamps, streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, tide flats, canals, and flooded fields. Great egrets are wading birds but they remain moitionless when attempting to secure prey. Upon spying prey, great egrets use a swift stab of their long bill to capture food items. Small mammals such as mice, reptiles, small birds, fish, mollusks and arthropods such as crayfish are utilized as food sources.
 
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: The great egret nests in colonies with other herons. Nests are built in trees or small shrubs and made of sticks covered with green plant material.  Great egrets lay 3 to 4 pale bluish eggs per nest. Not all young survive the nesting period. Aggression among nestlings is common and often large chicks will kill their smaller siblings. Young are covered in long white down and are capable of holding their heads up at birth. Plume (feather) hunters in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s reduced North American populations by more than 95 percent. Populations recovered after the birds were protected by law. No population is considered threatened, but this species is vulnerable to loss of wetland habitat. The great egret was adopted as the symbol of the National Audubon Society.
 
REFERENCES: Harper and Row’s Complete Guide to North American Wildlife – Eastern Edition. 1981. Harper and Row Publishers, Inc, New York, NY. 714pp    
 
AUTHOR: Bill Gray, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife & Freshwater Fisheries, November 2007

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