Here in our region of Florida, it hasn’t snowed since the early 1970s. Nestled below Frostproof and sporting street names like No Snow Circle and Sun N Lakes, we are truly a semi-tropical locale.
When the holiday season rolls around, it’s likely we will spend our Christmas Day in shorts and sometimes you can even head out onto the lakes. While we are enjoying our sun-drenched festivities, you are likely to see one of our snowy-colored birds.
The great egret sports plumage of bright, snowy-white and as one of our largest wading birds, it is an elegant, stately visitor to area ponds, lakes and ditches. With a long neck, impressive pointy yellow bill and black legs and feet, they are unmistakable. Thankfully this gorgeous creature survived the extensive plume hunting spanning the late 1800s to 1920.
During breeding season, long, lacy feathers cascade from the backs of these nearly four foot tall wading birds. Years ago they were in high demand to be turned into fashionable ladies’ hats. Entire birds were skinned and turned into fancy wearables akin to a coonskin cap. Imagine wearing that to your holiday gatherings? Thankfully the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 made the protection of birds of national interest and this deadly upper crust fashion died out, allowing the nearly 50 species of birds decimated during the trade to recover.
Called by a variety of names over the decades, the word egret actually stems from a French word — aigrette — which translates to ornamental tufts of plumes. Once known as the great white egret, great white heron or American egret, it is now formerly referred to as simply a great egret. A year round resident of Florida, it is also found in coastal regions of the United States and as far north as Minnesota and Oregon.
Feeding on fish, frogs, snakes and other aquatic creatures, you will notice it deftly spearing even large fish with its impressive bill. Adapted to fresh, salt or brackish water habitats, they can even be seen in shallow ditches or ponds around golf courses or neighborhoods. Mostly silent, a quiet observer may hear utter guttural croaks or squawks, especially as birds return to their roost sites.
During breeding season, in addition to those long, stunning plumes of feathers trailing from their backs, the lores or facial skin near the eyes, changes from yellow to a brilliant lime green. Great egrets nest in large groups, referred to as colonies. A nest of sticks will be made in bushes or low trees along wetlands and in natural areas where birds can safely breed. Nests built over water helps protect the chicks from predators such as raccoons. Larger, remote colonies may contain hundreds of breeding pairs and include other heron species.
Did you know? The great egret is the organizational symbol for the National Audubon Society.