The Birds of Bird City in Jungle Gardens

The cattle egret

The cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) is the newest arrival to Bird City and North America.  Originally confined to Europe, Asia, and Africa, on its own it traversed the Atlantic Ocean to arrive in the New World.  The first in the US was a small flock observed in Florida 1942, and within 15 years it was seen in Louisiana and has continued to expand its range across the US. 

Cattle egrets are the smallest white herons in our area. They have yellow beaks and yellow legs and feet.  During the spring breeding season, the adults acquire rich buff-colored plumage to the head, neck, and back.  They nest right alongside all other egrets in Bird City each year. 

This species is particularly terrestrial compared to other herons. It is fond of fields and grasslands, often following tractors or other grass mowers taking advantage of insect activity. Their name aptly refers to their cohabitation with cattle and other farm animals as they follow along catching insects disturbed by these animals.   Many ornithologists believe that their association with agriculture has brought about their widespread range expansion.  

The cattle egret may be more inclined to migrate out of our area compared to other herons, as fewer of them are seen by birders in winter months.  

Photos by Pam McIlhenny.

Cattle egret
Cattle egret with breeding plumage
Cattle egret with breeding plumage
Cattle egret in Bird City.

The Birds of Bird City in Jungle Gardens

The Great Egret

The great egret (Ardea alba), also known as the common egret or large egret, is a large, widely distributed egret, with four subspecies found in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and southern Europe.  It is perhaps the most abundant heron on Avery Island.  The great egret is easily distinguished from all other similar birds in our area by its large size, bright yellow beak, and all-black legs and feet.  

This species is sometimes confused with the great white heron of southern Florida and the Caribbean, which is a white form of the great blue heron.  When breeding, great egrets develop delicate lacey plumes. Because of this it was once hunted nearly to extinction. Its nesting season in Bird City coincides with that of the snowy egret.  

Great egrets are partially migratory, retreating from northern areas before winter and moving to warmer southern regions.  Because of its wide distribution in North America, great egrets can be found in all types of aquatic habitats.  In 1953 the great egret was chosen as the symbol of the National Audubon Society.   

All photos by Pam McIlhenny

Great egret in breeding plumage
Great egret, note yellow beak and all black legs and feet
Great egret in Bird City with young.

The Birds of Bird City in Jungle Gardens

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.

Snow Egret with breeding plumes
Snowy Egret in breeding plumage
Note the black legs and yellow feet.

Epidendrum magnolia The Green Fly Orchid

Louisiana’s only native epiphytic orchid Epidendrum magnoliae, formerly E. conopseum aka the Green Fly Orchid. It is usually can be found in bloom from April – August but the species is known produce flowers as late as November.

It ranges from Louisiana to southern North Carolina but the range map is misleading. It only occurs along the lower part of most states and not in their northern areas. It has been documented in Louisiana from the Abbeville area of Vermillion Parish eastward including many locations in the Atchafalaya Basin near St. Martinsville. It is particularly common east of the Mississippi River in nearly all of the “Florida” Parishes. I recall being told about a location near Lake Charles as there are many Southern Magnolias in the woods in that area, but have never seen a specimen to confirm it.

It is apparently not known from TX, but it would not surprise me if it is eventually discovered there along the lower east coast region.

Its favorite tree is the Southern Magnolia. Dr. Charles Allen (Louisiana plant guru) once told me that he thought every Southern Magnolia in Livingston Parish had this orchid on it. The orchid also is also known to grow on Live Oak trees and I have even seen it growing on River Birch in an area where the orchid was very abundant. Its occurrence on Live Oak is somewhat of a mystery to me, Why? Well Live Oaks are very common trees throughout the south, but the orchid is NOT common on them. I have only seen it in abundance on many Live Oaks in one location near Hammond LA. I have found it under Live Oaks at Jean Lafitte National Park, where the orchid plants that had fallen from the trees on the ground beneath them. Oddly I never could see it in the trees above. Since our native resurrection fern is so common on Live Oak trees I suspect the orchid may also be more common but it remains well hidden by all of the ferns. Surprisingly it seems to be frequent in Swamps often growing on Bald Cypress trees. There are numerous herbarium collections documenting it from the Pearl River swamps all the way to swamps near Abbeville. Obviously such places are just a tad inhospitable to explore so no doubt thats why it remains elusive.

A subspecies of this orchid occurs in Northeastern Mexico. I have seen specimens from that region being grown by orchid enthusiast. The leaves from Mexican plants are slightly larger and thicker but its still recognizable as the same species. While it is very cold hardy, it has always been assumed that it favors Magnolia trees because they are evergreen (not deciduous) and the dense leaf canopy offers the orchid increased protection from the elements.

While it has not been found on Avery Island there is certainly a high probability it is in the area and surrounding Cypress Swamps. I did transplant some on 3 trees in different locations on the Island, two of which still survive, and one of those is doing exceptionally well.


Aralia spinosa Devil’s Walking Stick – New to Avery Island


Its always exciting to discover a new plant species on Avery Island and especially one that is native to Louisiana. On May 24th, I found a small grove of Aralia spinosa, Devils Walking stick growing in a wooded area near DeVance Pond, which is located in the center of the Island.

While the species was previously known from Iberia parish, it had not been reported or collected on Avery Island. The colony that I observed consists of at least five medium size trees. I intent to explore the patch of woods in greater detail to see the full extent of the colony.

Araila spinosa has pattern of distribution in the southeast not unlike many other native plants. It is noticeably absent from the Mississippi River flood plane and occurs extensively to the east and west of the river on elevated lands, with a most peculiar disjunct population in Iberia and St. Mary Parishes. This is a considerable distance from both the western and eastern populations, and could be either very old relicts or recent additions, since their fruits are widely consumed and dispersed by wildlife.

Devil’s walking stick is a member of the ginseng family (Araliaceae). The common name and species epithet is derived from sharp prickles on the plants stems and branches Its alternate leaves are pinnately to tri-pinnately compound and may be up to 5 feet long and 4 feet wide, making them amongst the largest leaves of any native plant found in North America

Devil’s walking stick supplies fruit for many animals such as squirrels, foxes and raccoons, as well as many songbirds. Their berries are also known to be a favorite food for larger species such as black bears. The nectar in the flowers is used by butterflies and bees. Overall it can be a very important food plant for many native species. In earlier periods, Aralia Spinosa found widespread use in folk medicines, food, and furniture making. One such folk medicine claimed that the dried leaves could be ingested and used as an antidepressant. A tincture made from the bark was also used for rheumatism, skin diseases and syphilis. Its very prominent sharp spines make it a potentially dangerous plant to handle.

This is an exciting discovery of a very useful native plant that may be more widespread in the forest of Avery Island than previously known.

Large compound leaves of Aralia
Stem with spines and leaf arrangement
Plant growing at edge of forest
Heavily armed stem of Devil’s Walking Stick

Known distribution of Aralia spinosa in the southeastern US