Great Egret

Ardea alba

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Photo of a great egret
Great egrets are large, white herons with yellow bills and black legs and feet.
Noppadol Paothong
Family

Ardeidae (herons) in the order Pelecaniformes

Description

Unmistakable large white heron with a large yellow bill and black legs and feet. During breeding season, great egrets develop long, graceful plumes on their backs, and an exposed patch of facial skin turns bright green. The voice of a great egret is similar to that of the great blue heron but is lower and less resonant.

Similar species: Missouri’s four white herons — great egret, snowy egret, little blue heron (immature), and cattle egret — are all fairly common within their appropriate habitats. They may all be present in the same foraging flocks at floodplain pools or appear singly at a lake or farm pond. The great egret is easily distinguished from the others by its large yellow bill and dark legs, a combination no other heron in Missouri has, except perhaps for an immature cattle egret, which may have blackish legs. Adult cattle egrets usually are easily separated from great egrets by their small size, yellow bill, and yellow legs.

Key Identifiers

 

  • A white heron
  • Yellow bill
  • Black legs and feet
  • Large, for a heron
Size

Length: 39 inches; wingspan: 51 inches. Slightly smaller than a great blue heron.

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Photo of a great egret wading in a marsh
Great Egret
Great egrets stalk smoothly through shallow water, or just stand still, looking intently for prey below.

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Photo of a great egret catching a fish
Great Egret With Fish
A swift, precision jab of its bill, and the great egret catches its prey.

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Photo of a great egret in flight, viewed from above
Great Egret in Flight
The large yellow bill and black legs distinguish great egrets from other white egrets.

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Photo of a great egret in flight, seen from below
Great Egret
Great egrets in flight are a breathtaking sight.

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Photo of a great egret amid cattails in a wetland
Great Egret Amid Cattails in a Wetland
Look for great egrets in wetland areas. Their snowy white plumage makes them easy to spot.

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Photo of a great egret fishing, beautifully reflected on the water
Great Egret Fishing
Great egrets were overhunted in the 1800s because of a huge market demand for their graceful white breeding-plumage feathers, which were used to decorate hats.

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Photo of a great egret standing on its nest
Great Egret on Nest
Great egret nests are made of sticks and twigs; they are large — up to a yard across and a foot deep.

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Photo of a great egret on a tree branch
Great Egret
Great egrets sometimes join in breeding colonies of great blue herons.

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Photo of four juvenile great egrets standing in their nest
Great Egret Juveniles on Nest
If you find a place where great egrets or other herons are nesting, keep your distance, for their safety and yours. Use binoculars or a telescope.

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Photo of great egret juveniles.
Great Egret Juveniles
After hatching, great egret young stay at the nest for 21–25 days.

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Photo of a great egret taking flight.
Great Egret
The story of great egret conservation is a cautionary one, involving public outcry and economic and political forces.

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Photo of a group of great egrets standing on a muddy shoreline
Great Egrets
Great egrets are mostly present in Missouri late March through mid-November.

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Photo of three great egrets foraging in a marsh
Great Egrets Foraging in a Marsh
These great egrets were foraging at B.K. Leach Memorial Conservation Area in Lincoln County, Missouri.

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Photo of two great egrets in flight, seen from rear
Great Egrets in Flight
When breeding season is over, young and adult great egrets disperse from nesting colonies and may be observed statewide.

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Photo of a great egret in flight
Great Egret in Flight
Conservationists have learned a lot since the early struggle to rescue the great egret from extinction.
Habitat and conservation

Forages in marshes, ponds, ditches, and lakes. Some of the best locations to see large groups of herons foraging on floodplain wetlands include Eagle Bluffs, Ted Shanks, and Schell-Osage Conservation Areas and Squaw Creek, Mark Twain, and Mingo National Wildlife Refuges. River sandbars and shallow backwaters are also good places to see herons. When this species was hunted nearly into extinction, a popular groundswell for conservation saved it and, as public awareness grew, many, many other species.

Foods

Like most other large herons, great egrets stalk smoothly through shallow water, or just stand still, looking intently for prey below — small fish, frogs and other amphibians, crayfish, and large insects. A swift, precision jab with the bill catches the prey, which is flipped around, if necessary, and swallowed whole.

Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

As a summer breeding resident, uncommon but local; as a summer (nonbreeding) visitor, common; as a winter visitor, accidental. As a local and rare summer breeding resident in mixed heron colonies, look for it mainly in the Bootheel’s Mississippi Lowlands. After the end of the breeding season, young and adult great egrets disperse from nesting colonies and may be observed statewide.

Life cycle

Great egrets are mostly present in Missouri late March through mid-November, with numbers peaking the first half of May and from mid-July through mid-October. Many heron species in Missouri crowd into colonies in the spring to build their nests and raise their young. Sometimes a few pairs of great egrets appear in breeding colonies of great blue herons. Nests are made of sticks and twigs; the nests are large — up to a yard across and a foot deep. They are often built in trees above water. A clutch has up to 6 eggs, which are incubated for 21–27 days; after hatching the young stay at the nest for 21–25 days. Great egrets can live to be at least 22 years old.

Human connections

If you find a heron colony, keep your distance: alarmed herons may abandon their nests or destroy them in their flight; young may fall into the water and drown; fleeing birds may collide with branches or each other and break their wings. Also, entering heron colonies (or other large colonies of birds) increases your risk of contracting histoplasmosis, a serious respiratory disease caused by the airborne spores of a fungus common on bird droppings. Use binoculars or a telescope.

Ecosystem connections

Great egrets were overhunted in the 1800s because of a huge market demand for their graceful white breeding-plumage feathers, which were used to decorate hats. Hunters swarmed the countryside, killing vast numbers of egrets, especially when they were concentrated in nesting colonies, devotedly trying to rear their young. As their numbers declined, the price of their scalps increased. The birds nearly went extinct. This is when the National Audubon Society and many other conservation organizations formed, demanding lawmakers and fashion leaders to take action to save these and many other species. Their movement continues today, as conservationists seek to protect not only individual species but the habitat systems on which they depend.