The snowy egret
The snowy egret (Egretta thula) is a small white heron, which is easily distinguished from other similar white herons by its prominent black legs and yellow feet. No other North American heron has this unique color combination. The snowy egret is native to North, Central and South America. It is present all year round in the West Indies and South America, ranging as far south as Chile and Argentina. Elsewhere, in the southern part of the United States, it is migratory. It breeds all along the Gulf Coast as well as in many western states. Snowy egrets are usually found in all types of wetland habitats.
People often ask, “What’s the difference between an egret and a heron?” The answer is simple, all egrets are herons. The term egret usually applies to smaller species of herons.
At one time, the plumes of the snowy egret were in great demand as decorations for women’s hats. The birds were hunted primarily during the breeding season for these plumes. This practice reduced the population of the species to dangerously low levels and prompted E. A. McIlhenny to take steps to secure their survival. In 1895 he kept 8 young birds in a large aviary in Jungle Gardens and released them in the fall to migrate. He hoped they would return, and they did the following spring. This led to the sanctuary now known as Bird City. McIlhenny wrote that by 1910 thousands of egrets were nesting in Bird City. The plume trade ended in 1910 in North America but continued for some time in Central and South America.
All herons are now protected in the United States by law, under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Today the snowy egret population has rebounded and is thriving.
Bird City is unique because of its man-made nesting platforms. In early January of each year the nesting platforms are refurbished with dried bamboo. This encourages the birds to begin nesting as early as late January – much earlier than in natural rookeries, which usually become active in early March. By late February of each year the herons of Bird City already have nests filled with eggs, and young begin to appear in March. Nesting activities continue until late June and often by mid-July the young begin to leave the nest. Often by the end of July it’s all over and the adults and young have dispersed across the Island and elsewhere. Some return to the platforms in the evenings to roost at night.
Photos courtesy of Pam McIlhenny.