Wild South Florida — Great White Egret
 
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Great White Egret
great white egret
Great white egret, photographed at Green Cay Nature Center in Boynton Beach, Palm Beach County.
great white heron
 

The great white egret, Ardea alba, is a “can’t miss” bird because of its large size and pure white feathers. It’s a common sight year-round in South Florida’s wetlands.

In fact, at certain times of the year, this bird can be seen throughout the United States, either as a part-time resident for breeding or in migration. In parts of California and the southeastern U.S., it is a year-round resident. It is also a permanent resident of parts of the Caribbean. In winter, great white egrets will migrate throughout South America except for the Andean backbone.

It is a very large bird, by local standards, with a body length of more than three feet and a wingspan of more than four. It is pure white, with a yellow-orange bill and black legs and feet. The closest bird in appearance is the snowy egret, but they are substantially smaller, have bright yellow feet and a black bill.

In breeding season, a portion of the great white’s face turns a neon green, as seen in the photo at left. It also displays long plumes called aigrettes, which were almost the ruin of this bird. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries these plumes were used to adorn ladies’ hats; demand was such that 95 percent of the great white egret population was wiped out. Outrage over the slaughter  provided the impetus for the passage of the first federal laws protecting the egret and other birds. The great white became the symbol of the National Audobon Society.

Fish are the dietary mainstay of the great white egret, but we've seen them eat frogs and young birds. They'll also eat insects and small mammals. They will stalk the shallows for prey or stand perfectly still and ambush dinner.

 
 
great white heron eating frog

 

Great white herons are social birds. They will form nest colonies in trees and on islands out of the reach of predators such as raccoons. The pond apple tree islands of Wakodahatchee Weltands are one of the best places to see nesting egrets close up.Great whites are monogamous during breeding season, but according to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, it isn't known whether these bonds extend year to year. Females lay as many as a half-dozen eggs, which take three to four weeks to hatch. Both parents handle incubation duties, and both feed the young. Sibling rivalry can be a deadly affair; if food is scarce, larger nestlings will kill smaller members of the family. After two or three weeks, the young walk about the nest; after six or seven, they can fly.

Since the early 20th century, great white egret numbers have been increasing. That trend has continued in recent decades, but habitat loss and degradation are threats. Great whites are members of Ardeidae, the family of herons, egrets and bitterns.

 
 
 
Photographs by David Sedore
 
great white egret great white egret great whie egret
     
More Links for Great White Egret Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology Audubon Society National Geographic
     
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without their express permission.