Bird Lore: Snowy Egret

A Snowy Egret is always a great sighting anywhere in Washington. Edmonds hosted one and only one in the marsh on May 21, 2002, and for a couple of days following. Ted Peterson, a local birder and creator of the city bird checklist for the Edmonds Parks Department, spotted a large white bird in Willow Creek while visiting the marsh that morning. In flight its long legs extend beyond the tail, so when it flew west toward the BNSF property, Ted could see the yellow feet of a Snowy Egret and alerted others to its presence. A number of local birders were able to enjoy the egret before it moved on.

In the U.S., the Snowy Egret can be found from the Mid-Atlantic to the Texas Gulf Coast, along the California and Southern Oregon coasts and in summer in the southern parts of the Intermountain West. It can be widespread in a variety of aquatic habitats, both fresh and salt water. Inland this species favors marshes and other large wetlands. In coastal areas it can be found on sheltered bays. It is a resident of coastal Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean Islands, as well as all of non-Andean South America.

Diet of the Snowy Egret is varied and includes rodents, snakes, frogs, crayfish, fish, crabs, snails, and insects. It sometimes forages in dry fields, following cattle as they stir up insects. But it often forages in shallow water where it actively walks or runs. It will also stand still and wait for prey to approach or use its feet to stir bottom sediments, which can startle prey into motion.

Nesting occurs in colonies in trees, shrubs, or mangroves, usually 5-10 feet above ground. The Snowy Egret will breed in colonies mixed with other wading birds. The male selects a nest site and then displays to ward off rivals and to attract a mate. He will point his bill straight up, raising all plumes, and pumping his head up and down while calling. He will also circle the nest site, fly high, and then tumble down toward the ground. This short video illustrates courtship display:

Both sexes build the nest, which is a platform of sticks. Both adults incubate the three to five eggs for 20-24 days. Both feed the young. It has been said that the last to hatch often starves to death. The young leave the nest at 20-25 days of age though they probably cannot fly until at least 30 days.

Studies have demonstrated that a pair of Snowy Egrets cannot recognize each other except when at the nest. Even at the nest, a bird arriving to relieve its mate performs what has been called an elaborate greeting ceremony in order to avoid being attacked as an intruder. The oldest known Snowy Egret was 17 years and seven months. It was banded in Colorado in 1970 and found in Mexico in 1988. The species is known to wander widely in summer and fall. Some collective nouns for a group of any egrets include congregation, skewer and wedge.

From the 1880s to 1910, Snowy Egrets were slaughtered in the U.S. for their beautiful breeding plumes. In 1886 plumes were valued at $32 an ounce, twice the then price of gold. Outrage led to laws to protect the species although they continued to be hunted in Central and South America as European demand persisted. The species rebounded in the mid-20th century and then started to decline again as wetlands have been drained and converted to other uses. The species needs wetlands and marshes that are extensive in size to support its foraging activity. It is vulnerable to pesticides, ingestion of plastics and lead, and habitat degradation. It does not appear to be vulnerable to human activity such as banding, boats and overflights.

Herons and egrets are a lot prettier to look at than to listen to. Nonetheless, this is the flight call of a Snowy Egret: Here are calls from a colony of egrets:

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.


3 Replies to “Bird Lore: Snowy Egret”

  1. Thank you, Carol, for another interesting article. I found it fascinating that a bird would not recognize its mate by sight.


  2. I’m glad, Julia, that you continue to enjoy the columns. I read in another source that the adult returning to the nest will bring an offering of a stick. I wondered if that assists the adult at the nest in recognizing its mate.


  3. What a beautiful bird! And thank you for the background information! Protecting nature is so important for the continuation of a joyful life.


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