Great egret (Casmerodius albus)

Also known as: Great white egret, great white heron
Synonyms: Ardea alba, Egretta alba
French: Grande aigrette
GenusCasmerodius (1)
SizeLength: 94 – 104 cm (2)
Wingspan: 131 – 145 cm (2)
Weight1 kg (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The great egret is a large heron which, as an adult, has entirely white plumage with contrasting black feet and long, black legs (3). Colour is added by its bright yellow bill, tipped with black, and the greenish-yellow area between the bill and the eye (3). Like many herons, it has a long neck that is pulled into an ‘s’-shaped curve when in flight (3). During the breeding season the great egret displays wonderful, elegant plumes on its back, which extend up to ten centimetres past the tail and are used in courtship displays. In these displays, the great egret spreads its plumes out like a fan, rather like a peacock (3). Juvenile great egrets look similar to the adults but without the ornamental breeding plumes (3). The great egret gives a variety of calls, including a low-pitched ‘kraak’ call that is given in flight, when disturbed, and as a threat call (3).

The great egret has a very large range, occurring across much of the world, from Canada south to South America, across Europe, Africa and Asia, and in Australia (3). Africa is generally only occupied outside of breeding times (4).

This species occurs in all kinds of wetlands, both inland and along the coast (4), although in winter or during droughts it is generally more common along the coast (5). It is typically found at low altitudes (3) (6).

Within its wetland habitats, the great egret feeds mainly on fish, snakes, amphibians, insects and crustaceans, although on drier land it may also eat lizards, small birds and mammals (4). It feeds most actively at dawn and dusk, when it can often be found waiting motionless at the water’s edge until prey comes close enough to catch (3).

Breeding takes place once per year, when the great egret produces a single brood. In temperate regions this takes place in spring or summer, while in tropical regions it may take place at any time of the year (3). The male performs an interesting display to attract a female; this includes stretching the neck, clacking the bill, and erecting the magnificent plumes that develop during the breeding season (7). The great egret may either nest alone or in colonies, which can consist of over 1,000 nests. The nests are made from sticks and are positioned near the water in trees, bushes or reed beds (3). Great egret nestlings regularly kill the youngest of their siblings for food and the parents rarely prevent this from happening (8).

During the late 1800s and early 1900s (9), plume hunters were a significant threat to this beautiful bird (4). The great egret was hunted for its spectacular breeding plumes (4) (9), which were in great demand for hat decorations.  In the name of fashion, the adults were killed and any eggs in the nest were left to rot, while chicks were fated to starve (9).

Whilst this activity once caused a dramatic drop in population sizes (especially in North America) the great egret is no longer under great threat from hunters (4). Today, a more pressing threat is habitat loss, due to activities such as clearing, grazing, and the drainage of wetlands (5). In Madagascar great egrets are at risk from local people collecting chicks and eggs from nests, which has resulted in a decline in populations in this area (3) (10). Finally, the great egret, along with many other species, may be impacted in the future by the alteration of its preferred habitats as a result of global climate change (11).

The great egret was protected by law from plumage hunters in the 1900s and, as a result, populations managed to re-establish themselves (7) (9). Today, no conservation efforts appear to be in place for this species, but due to the nature of some of the threats the great egret now faces, future conservation actions that focus on the protection of its breeding colonies and preferred habitats may be required (3).

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  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2010)
  2. McCrimmon, D.A., Ogden, J.C. and Bancroft, G.T. (2001) Great egret (Ardea alba). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca.
  3. Kushlan, J.A. and Hancock, J.A. (2005) Bird Families of the World: Herons. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. Del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 1: Ostrich to Ducks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  5. Marchant, S.M. and Higgins, P.J. (1990) Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  6. Elphick, C. and Dunning, J.B. (2001) The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. Knopf Publishing Group, New York.
  7. Nellis, D.W. (2001) Common Coastal Birds of Florida and the Caribbean. Pineapple Press, Florida.
  8. Mock, D.W. (1987) Siblicide, parent-offspring conflict, and unequal parental investment by egrets and herons. Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, 20(4): 247-256.
  9. Ryser, F.A. (1985) Birds of the Great Basin: A Natural History. University of Nevada Press, USA.
  10. Langrand, O. (1990) Guide to the Birds of Madagascar. Yale University Press, New Haven.
  11. BirdLife International (November, 2009)