Great Egret

Common Name: Great Egret.

Scientific Name: Ardea Alba.

What to look for?  The Great Egret has all white feathers. Their bills are yellowish-orange. And they have black legs. Think smaller version of Sesame Street's "Big Bird" except all white!

Where can they be found at Carillon Stonegate Pond? Look along the shorelines of our ponds. And occasionally, you can spot one or more Great Egrets roosting in the trees above our western pond.

How big are they? The Great Egret averages 3 feet in height. They weigh in at approximately 2 pounds. And their wingspan is 5 to 6 feet.

What are their flight patterns? The flight of the Great Egret has been described as regal, elegant and graceful. How would you describe it? As these birds fly, you will notice the large wingspan that can be 5 to 6 feet. In flight, they retract their S-shaped neck – this distinguishes Great Egrets from Storks and Cranes which fly with their necks fully extended.

How else do they behave? Great Egrets and the Great Blue Heron hunt in a similar fashion. They wade slowly through the shore of ponds and wetlands. They will stand immobile patiently awaiting a fish – its motionless legs looking like branches to its prey. They will jab their sharp bill and snatch up the fish or prey – usually headfirst and swallow it.

What’s for dinner? The Great Egret is a carnivore and hunter. They feed on fish, frogs, crustaceans, snakes and other small aquatic animals.

Where do they take up residence? The Great Egret is common in North America (see map from Birds of North America in right column). They are also found throughout South America, Africa, and parts of Asia. In Illinois, they are common migrants and summer residents as well as a breeding area (in orange in map on right). According to the Illinois Natural History Survey, the Great Egret requires two distinct habitat types: 1) foraging habitat in unpolluted wetland situations and 2) nesting habitat, usually near foraging habitat, containing either trees or shrubs that provide enough support and building materials (twigs) for the nest. The Great Egret lives around marshes, ponds, shorelines of rivers and lakes, flooded fields and mudflats.

Where do they breed and nest? The Great Egret will build nests upwards of 100 feet off the ground near the top of a tree and near a wetland. The nest is large – up to three (3) feet wide and one (1) foot deep. The breeding season typically occurs in April. The female lays eggs which will hatch in approximately three (3) weeks. The young birds will fledge in about an additional three (3) weeks.

Where do they migrate? Great Egrets may migrate in the Midwest as far north as southern Wisconsin and Minnesota. And during the winter, they move south. They migrate by day in small flocks. Great Egrets may reside permanently in the southern U.S. - not migrating at all. In late summer and fall, Great Egrets are found across the U.S. See map from Birds of North America on the right.

What is their conservation status? There is low concern. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the Great Egret has seen slight increases in populations. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 1.4 million.

Do they make any interesting sounds? Great Egrets are mostly silent as you see them on our ponds. But they do make various croaking calls. And when they are alarmed or disturbed, they produce a very harsh croak. Here is a link to the sounds of the Great Egret.

Interesting Facts About Great Egrets:

  • During the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s, the Great Egret was hunted almost to extinction as its beautiful white plumes (feathers) were used to decorate hats. 

  • In 1953, the Great Egret in flight was chosen as the symbol of the National Audubon Society, founded in part to stop these birds from being killed to extinction (All About Birds). 

  • The Great Egret was included on the Illinois Endangered Species List in 1977, but is doing well now and has been off this list since the late 1990’s.

  • The average life span for the Great Egret is 15 years.

For more information on Great Egrets and sources of information used in this blog (these are the sources that I am using to learn as I blog), please visit All About Birds, Audubon Society and Illinois Natural History Survey.  And the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides a wonderful source of information for anyone interested in learning more about birds.

The Carillon at Stonegate community is very fortunate to have a variety of wetland, forest and prairie environments conducive to a variety of birds and other wildlife, plants and insects. Our community and the Kane County Forest Preserve do an exceptional job in maintaining this natural environment – both for the benefit of the birds and wildlife and for our residents to enjoy.

 

Take a hike and see what you can find – and identify!