Egret, a heron that bears long plumes during the mating season. Both males and females bear the plumes, called aigrettes. The plumes were once greatly sought by hat makers, and egrets were ruthlessly slaughtered by plume hunters. Most countries now have laws protecting these birds.
The great egret, also called the American egret, is found in many parts of the world besides the United States. It is white with a yellow bill and black feet and legs. The great egret is about 40 inches (1 m) long. The snowy egret, found in North and South America, is white with black bill and legs and yellow feet. It is about 25 inches (65 cm) long. The reddish egret, found along the Gulf Coast in the United States, is about 30 inches (75 cm) long. It is gray with a brownish head and neck. Its flesh-colored bill is tipped with black.Egrets bear long plumes during the mating season.
It is difficult to catch a fish as it darts through the water. That is why, to avoid scaring their prey, most egrets stand very still in the water when they hunt fish, moving only their eyes. However, as is usual in nature, there are exceptions to this rule. Some egrets actively chase fish when they hunt, rather than waiting for the fish to come to them.
One of the most active wading birds is the reddish egret. This egret will run and hop in the shallow water where it pursues swimming fish. It often holds out one or both of its wings as it chases its prey, probably to help the bird keep its balance.
The cattle egret, native to Europe, Asia, and Africa, has become established in North and South America and Australia. It is about the same size as the snowy egret and has white plumage, yellow legs and feet, and a yellowish bill. These birds are often found where there are cattle, with which they have a symbiotic relationship; they pick and eat ticks and flies from the backs of the cattle.
Egrets breed in large colonies and lay three to six pale bluish eggs in nests made in marshes. They eat small animals such as grasshoppers, lizards, and toads.
If you see a small, white bird sitting comfortably on the back of a cow, an ox, or a buffalo, it is likely you are looking at a cattle egret. Cattle egrets sometimes hunt like other wading birds, catching fish and frogs along the water’s edge. But, most often, they follow herds of livestock to eat the grasshoppers that are stirred up by the cattle’s hoofs.
They also eat flies and other biting creatures that are pests to the cows. Cattle egrets also can be found searching for things to eat at garbage dumps.
Cattle egrets originally lived only in Africa. But, during the mid-1900’s, they slowly began to increase their flying range to North and South America as well. In fact, cattle egrets can be found now almost anywhere there is farming or animal herding. Today, they are one of the most widespread and common wading birds.
It is not always “home, sweet home” in an egret’s nest. In fact, family life for egrets can get pretty nasty.
The female egret will most often lay three eggs that are each about the size of a chicken’s egg (or a little larger). These eggs are whitish or pale blue in color and are laid one at a time a few days apart. This means that each of the chicks is a slightly different age. This is fine for the first chicks to hatch, but the last chick to hatch can be in for a tough time.
The oldest two chicks have a head start, so they are bigger and stronger than the youngest. The three chicks compete for food from the parents, and the youngest of the chicks often goes hungry. It may fall further behind in growth and become weaker because it does not get enough to eat. Often, the older chicks pick on the youngest and, before long, they may even kill it.
This strategy, however, does mean that at least one or two egret chicks usually survive, even when food is scarce.
Egrets belong to the family Ardeidae. The great egret is Ardea alba; the snowy egret, Egretta thula; the reddish egret, Egretta rufescens; the cattle egret, Bubulcus ibis.