The Daintiest of Egrets: The Snowy Egret Survived The Plume Trade But Is Still ImperiledNov 23, 2020 05:00PM ● By WILLIAM R. COX
The snowy egret (Egretta thula) is distinguished by its beautiful white plumage, with vivid yellow and black details. It has yellow lores, a black bill and black legs with bright yellow feet. Its appearance is even more striking when sporting its breeding plumage of long feathery plumes on its back and throat.
This dainty wading bird, measuring 22-26 inches long with a 39-inch wingspan, was one of the most sought-after birds by the plume trade in the late 19th century for the abundance of its fine aigrettes (French for egret), referring to the head plumes of the egret. These plumes were in high demand for a lady’s headdress, also called an aigrette, consisting primarily of white egret feathers. The snowy egret and other wading birds in Florida nearly went extinct by the early 1900s because of the plume trade.
With the prohibition of the plume trade by 1910-1913, the snowy egret managed to recover its population in most regions, reaching peak numbers between the 1930s and 1950s. Since then, however, its nesting numbers have declined dramatically. Because of this decline it was listed as a species of special concern by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) but was taken off this list in Florida on January 11, 2017, after its populations had rebounded. The snowy egret is still part of the FWC’s imperiled species management plan, however, and is protected under all local, state, federal and international treaties and laws for nongame and migratory birds.
The snowy egret thrives in mostly saltwater environments, as well as freshwater wetlands. This includes mangroves, coastal beaches, shallow saltwater estuaries, shallow bays, salt marshes and pools, tidal channels, agriculture environments, canals, wet prairies, freshwater marshes, urban environments and hardwood and cypress swamps. It nests in a variety of trees and shrubs in both coastal and inland wetlands, including different species of mangroves, willows, Australian pine, pond apple, Brazilian pepper, cypress, buttonbush and elderberry.
Breeding season in Florida begins in March or April and continues through August. The egret nests in multispecies colonies in a flat and loosely constructed stick nest usually 6-15 feet off the ground. The male gathers the sticks, and the female builds the nest. The nest is lined with small twigs and rushes. Sometimes nest building is difficult in multispecies rookeries. I have observed adjacent nesting great egrets taking sticks from snowy egret nests for their own nests.
Three to five light bluish-green eggs are laid in the nest. Both the male and female incubate the eggs for 20-24 days. Asynchronous hatching is the result of the eggs being laid on different days. In hatching, the young are semialtricial, meaning they are immobile, downy, eyes open and fed. The downside of this nesting strategy is that usually the smallest chicks starve to death.
The snowy egret has the most diverse feeding techniques of any heron. It is a stand-and-wait predator, often foraging in a canopy area. Another technique is to shuffle its yellow feet to flush out prey, and it has been observed chasing prey by following other wading birds. It can also hover over water too deep for wading. It forages on grasshoppers, worms, crayfish, shrimp, prawns, aquatic insects, fish, frogs, snakes and rodents. Parents partially digest food and regurgitate it to the nestlings. Young egrets fledge 20-25 days after hatching but stay at the nest for several months.
Many threats still endanger the snowy egret. Some scientists believe the major threat is significant loss of foraging habitat over many years in Florida. The snowy egret requires a variety of wetland sites to be available regionally during the right season. It needs wetlands with different annual hydroperiods and stable water depths with options for foraging and nesting in a range of dry and wet rainfall conditions. Many wetlands today do not provide these optimal conditions.
Poor water quality resulting from the impacts of heavy metals, pesticides, eutrophication and turbidity has diminished the function of wetlands, preventing proper prey abundance, composition and conditions for wading birds. Other threats include human disturbance, loss of roosting and rookery sites and direct loss of foraging habitat to excessive development.
Protection and management of foraging and nesting habitat are critical for the survival of this delicate wading bird.
William R. Cox has been a professional nature photographer and ecologist for more than 35 years. Visit him online at williamrcoxphotography.com.