This striking and elegant member of the heron family can be identified by its pure white feathers; elongated, sinuous neck; long, black legs and dark, stabbing bill. Two subspecies of the little egret are recognised, Egretta garzetta garzetta and Egretta garzetta nigripes (4). E. g. garzetta sports vivid yellow feet and a grey-green patch of skin between the bill and eyes, while E. g. nigripes has black feet and has a yellow patch of skin between the eyes and bill. During the breeding season, breeding adults develop two long, slender nape plumes and a beautiful gauzy plumage around the breast and back (5), and in individuals of the E. g. garzettasubspecies, the bare skin between the eyes becomes a bright red or blue colour. Juvenile little egrets are similar in appearance to the non-breeding adults, but have less striking colouration on the feet and around the eyes (5).
The little egret is an opportunistic hunter (5), feeding mainly during the day whilst walking through shallow, open water, stabbing prey with its bill (5)(6). It is highly dependent on visual cues when hunting and therefore its feeding is highly affected if the water is not clear (5)(6). It feeds primarily on small fish, which are usually around 1.2 to 6 centimetres in length, but bivalves, crustaceans, and other invertebrates are also consumed (5).
Little egrets breed at different times of the year depending on location. Those populations based in Europe and Asia breed during spring and summer, whilst the breeding seasons of more tropical populations coincide with rainy seasons (5). Little egrets nest in mixed or single species colonies, and lay four to six eggs in single clutch, with the chicks hatching three weeks later and fledging at four weeks old. The chicks will spend a further month in their parents' care before leaving the nest and dispersing (7).
The little egret is never far from water and is usually found in large wetland areas, typically on mudflats and marshland, but it can also be found hunting in tidal estuaries or small streams (5). It usually nests in bushes, trees, marshes, swamps, dry open country, woods and on sea cliffs (7).
In the 19th century, many species of egret and heron were hunted for their plumage feathers, which were used for decorating hats. As this fashion craze grew, the hunting of egrets and herons increased dramatically and populations of the little egret plummeted. Laws were eventually implemented that protected the little egret from hunting and the population recovered, but the little egret now faces new threats (7).
These new threats include the gradual destruction of its wetland habitat for farming and avian influenza; little egret populations suffered with a recent outbreak and any future outbreaks could put a severe dent in its numbers (5)(8). However, a far more pressing issue is the use of chemicals in intensive farming, as the little egret’s diet consists largely of freshwater fish which may contain the poisonous chemicals (5).
Although not a globally threatened species (1), the little egret is protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it an offence to kill, injure or take an egret, or to take, damage or destroy an active nest or its contents (7).
A group of aquatic molluscs in which the the soft parts are encased in a shell consisting of two parts known as valves.
Diverse group of arthropods (a phylum of animals with jointed limbs and a hard chitinous exoskeleton) characterised by the possession of two pairs of antennae, one pair of mandibles (parts of the mouthparts used for handling and processing food) and two pairs of maxillae (appendages used in eating, which are located behind the mandibles). Includes crabs, lobsters, shrimps, slaters, woodlice and barnacles.
Animals with no backbone.
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other
populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
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