Egrets and herons both belong to the ardeidae family and share many of the same characteristics. Like herons, egrets are wading birds and colonize with a mixture of wading birds. Like herons, egrets live within trees or shrubs near marshes, ponds or any body of salt or freshwater. During breeding season male egrets attract their mates through an acrobatic flight, also known as a “mating dance.” They will fly through the air with their bills sticking straight up. As they broaden their bodies they will begin shaking their heads up and down while calling towards the females. Once successful, the couple begins building a nest and caring for their new young as a team.
An egret’s diet is similar to that of its relative, the heron. Egrets eat an array of shoreline creatures such as fish, crabs, crayfish, frogs, snakes, insects, rodents and lizards. Egrets and herons also face many of the same predators. One hunter in particular is humans.
The name egret comes from the French word “aigrette” meaning arrangement or plume of feathers. During the middle ages this species was hunted for its feathers, often worn in a woman’s headdress. This fashion trend claimed the lives of many egrets, dramatically impacting their population size. Today, egrets, as well as herons, are under protection and their numbers are increasing.
Snowy Egret Egretta thula- Snowy egrets get their name from their bleach white coloring, which covers their bodies. They also have a nickname “golden slippers” for the bright yellow feet that contrast with their long, thin black legs. The snowy egret also has a pointed, black beak and can grow 20-27 inches tall.
Its diet is similar to many of its shallow-bird relatives, but its hunting style differs. Unlike most egrets that wait patiently or stalk their prey slowly before pouncing, the snowy egret runs after its prey. This species shuffles across the water in hopes of stirring up prey such as small fish, crabs and crayfish. On land, it also eats snakes, insects, lizards and rodents.
During breeding season, between spring and summer, snowy egrets search for a mate. Once a male and a female pair up, both will begin building their nest and family. Snowy egrets lay between three to five eggs at a time. The eggs hatch in less than a month and the young leave the nest about three weeks after hatching. Snowy egrets in Virginia can be spotted breeding along the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic coast. During the winter months snowy egrets migrate further south toward South and Central America for warmer weather.
In July 2015, the snowy egrets in the Museum’s Coastal Plain Aviary built a nest and hatched four chicks that are now mature and thriving in the aviary.
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis- The cattle egret is an Old World species that originally inhabited Africa. During the 20th century this bird drastically expanded its range across the Atlantic to South and North America. Today, it is the only egret in Virginia that does most of its feeding on land. Unlike its shoreline-feeding relatives, the cattle egret prefers to hunt in grassy fields among cattle or along roadside ditches. This habit earned the bird its name as “cattle egret.” Cattle egrets seek out insects, earthworms, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and on occasion, fish, to prey on.
Cattle egrets have white feathers across their bodies and stand about a foot and a half tall. During breeding season their plumage adds buff-orange highlights along their chest, back and crown. At this time couples will form and lay three to four eggs per clutch. Once hatched, the young will scatter miles from the nest. This behavior helps drive this bird’s large growth across the globe.