The Great egret is the largest of the white egrets. At almost a metre in length and with a wingspan of up to 1.3 metres, it is almost as large as the more familiar Grey heron. Apart from its size, the Great Egret can be distinguished from other white egrets by the combination of its yellow bill and black legs and feet. When in its breeding plumage, ornamental plumes are present on its shoulders. Males and females are identical in plumage and size. Although regarded as “uncommon”, the Great egret has a very wide distribution and is to be found in many parts of the world.
It flies with relatively slow wing-beats and with its neck retracted, in the manner of all herons and egrets.
The snow-white feathers of the Great egret are beautiful, and this led the bird close to extinction in the second half of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. Fashion during those decades demanded that ladies’ hats be festooned with feathers, and it was the feathers of the Great egret that were amongst the most coveted. It is said that upwards of 300 Great egrets were slaughtered to produce just one kilogram of feathers, and that these feathers could be sold for twice the value of the same weight of gold.
It is from these valuable feathers, and especially the plumes of the breeding birds, called “aigrette” in French, that the egret derives its name. The egrets and the herons belong to the same family, with the white birds generally being referred to as egrets and the coloured birds as herons.
The Great egrets inhabit all types of wetlands, both inland and along the coast, generally feeding in shallow water, mainly on fish and frogs, which they spear with their long, sharp bills. Commonly they will stand motionless, waiting for likely prey to come within striking distance, when they will stab forward and impale the victim on their bill. When in drier areas they feed on small mammals, grasshoppers and other insects.
The call of the Great egret is a raucous “croak-croak” which is often uttered while in flight.
The birds are usually shy and solitary, although the same couples are thought to re-unite to mate during the breeding season. The nests are platforms of sticks and twigs, with a lining of finer material, often near water and may be located in heronries with other varieties of herons. The female usually lays two to three eggs that hatch after an incubation period of about 26 days.
The scientific name of the Great egret, has changed several times (as has its common name!) and is presently Egretta alba; egretta from the French “aigrette” meaning a tuft or crest, which was later adopted as the name for an egret or a little heron; and “alba” being the Latin for white. Thus a white egret or heron. All quite sensible, really.