The Graceful Great Egret

How conservation laws brought this bird back from the brink

|  STORY BY LAURA KIRAN  |

If you are fortunate enough to see the gracefulness of a great egret in person, you can thank early conservation efforts. Some of the first laws to protect birds centered around this tall, balletic bird, which was hunted close to extinction in the late 19th century. The great egret was targeted for its pristinely white plumes, which were in high demand as adornments to the current fashions of the time. These plumes were so popular that they were at one time worth twice their weight in gold. 

While other species of birds were also widely hunted for the feather trade, the great egret was among the most sought after and its populations subsequently dwindled. Luckily, hunting and trade regulations brought about by preservationists in the early 1900s led to the protection of the great egret’s colonies and its numbers eventually rebounded.  

A conservation success story, the great egret was chosen as the symbol of the National Audubon Society.

Great Facts About the Great Egret

  • Great egrets can be found in Central Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of North, Central and South America.
  • A member of the heron family, these birds stand more than 3 feet tall and their wingspan stretches to almost 5 feet, which is longer and wider than most other white herons.
  • Having such a long wingspan makes the great egret powerful in flight, reaching a speed of about 25 miles per hour. 
  • During mating season, this stately bird becomes even more decorated. A swath of skin from its beak to its eyes turns neon green. Long wispy plumes – the beauty of which almost brought about its demise – grow on its back and are raised during courting rituals.    
  • This water wader nests near streams, ponds and marshes, as well as inland lakes and wooded swamp areas.
  • The great egret will sometimes swim to catch its prey, which mainly consists of fish, but can include amphibians, reptiles, birds, small mammals, insects and crustaceans. With a razor-sharp bill that it uses as a spear, the great egret will pierce or grab its prey and swallow it whole.
  • Known to be fearless, great egrets have at times been seen perched on top of alligators in subtropical and tropical climates. It turns out this relationship has benefits for both species.
  • Great egret hatchlings are equally as bold as their parents. They often show aggression toward their siblings, using their bills to fight for dominance. 

At the Forest Preserve District’s Lake Renwick Heron Rookery Nature Preserve, great egret numbers have grown over the years, from a recorded 63 nests in 1983 to 489 nests in 2016. Over that 33-year time period, this number has only been surpassed once, with 535 great egret nests recorded at the preserve in 2014.

See the great egret in person by attending one of the Forest Preserve’s upcoming bird viewing programs.

(Photos courtesy of Paul Dacko)