Little egret (Egretta garzetta)

French: Aigrette garzette
GenusEgretta (1)
SizeLength: 64 cm (2)
Wingspan: 88 - 106 cm (4)
Weight300 g (3)

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

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. garzetta subspecies, 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 a widespread species and can be found throughout southern Europe, southern Asia and Africa. Smaller populations can also be found in Australia (5).

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).

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).

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).

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2010)
  2. Whistler, H. (1928) Popular Handbook of Indian Birds. Gurney and Jackson, London.
  3. McKilligan, N. (2005) Herons, Egrets and Bitterns: their Biology and Conservation in Australia. CSIRO, Australia.
  4. Cocker, M. and Mabey, R. (2005) Birds Britannica. Chatto and Windus, London.
  5. Kushlan, J.A. and Hancock, J. (2005) Herons. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  6. Cezilly, F. (1992) Turbidity as an ecological solution to reduce the impact of fish-eating colonial waterbirds on fish farms. Colonial Waterbirds, 15(2): 249-252.
  7. Southend RSPB (November, 2009)
  8. Melville, D.S. and Shortridge, K.F. (2006) Spread of H5N1 avian influenza virus: an ecological conundrum. Letters in Applied Microbiology, 42: 435-437.