Egrets are beautiful white birds with long, slender, S-shaped necks. As a species, they were once in danger of extinction, but in 1918 were placed under legal protections. Since then their numbers have steadily risen. They now face new threats, both environmental and predatory.
Snowy and Great Egrets
The great egret, and it's smaller cousin the snowy egret, can be found in saltwater and fresh wetlands all across America, but their numbers are particularly high in Texas, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and up the Atlantic seacoast as far north as Canada. They hunt for prey in shallow waters, where they wade silently and stealthily searching for fish, frogs and just about anything that lives in the water. They strike with lightening quick speed and swallow their prey whole. On land they often find mice, lizards and other small creatures. The adult egret has no predators, but that doesn't mean they don't have to contend with threats to their survival.
Great egrets build their nests high up in the trees, usually on mangroves and islands away from land. The male egret selects the location, and both the male and female build the nests from twigs, roots, sticks and reeds. This location away from land mass and high in the trees keeps their eggs safe from ground predators, such as raccoons and other omnivorous mammals that forage for eggs. But the biggest threat to the eggs and hatchlings comes from crows, vultures, jays and hawks. Unlike the great egret, the snowy egret builds a nest on the ground under bushes. Though more vulnerable to threats on the land, the snowy egret is a fierce protector of its territory and its young. Gregarious animals, egrets like to nest in flocks, called rookeries.
In the 1900s, the egret was aggressively hunted and killed for its brilliant white plumage. Killed almost to extinction, 95 percent of the egret population was slaughtered to make feathery hats for women, National Geographic reports. Ounce for ounce, their feathers sold for twice the price of gold. Because they like to nest in rookeries, they were easily shot by the hundreds and stripped of their feathers. Young egrets still in the nests starved to death and the egret was almost wiped off the earth. Thanks to conservationists who took action, the egret was placed under the protection of the Great Migratory Treaty Act of 1918. Their population came back in healthy numbers, but they are still threatened by humans.
Egrets are in real danger of losing their habitats because of construction and flood control. They are adaptable, but they cannot survive in a world where everything seems to be working against them. Water pollution causes them to become sick from eating marine animals raised in water with high levels of mercury. Hydrocarbons, used in fuel and pesticides, are deadly to egrets because they affect their eggs, causing the shells to be thin and too weak to fully sustain a developing life. The loss of their habitat causes them to compete with other birds, causing stress, which in turn affects their behavior. Mating and raising their young is especially challenging in the presence of all the threats egrets face by humans.
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.