The Great Egret

The Great Egret

When I think about the Great Egret (Ardea alba), two words come to mind—pristine and elegant. One of the most commonly found and easily identifiable wetland birds in South Florida, their history is nothing short of a success story. Like the Snowy Egret, their population was once nearly decimated at the hands of the fashion industry, where getting roughly two pounds of feathers required killing 300 Great Egrets. In an incredible comeback thanks to conservationist efforts in the early 1900s, they’re now found on every continent in the world except Antarctica.

Slightly smaller than a Great Blue Heron, these imposing waterbirds are one of the largest avians found roaming the Florida Everglades. Primarily unsociable, they stand out easily among their peers with their immaculate white plumage and domineering stature.

They say that seeing one is symbolic of purity, longevity, strength, and loyalty—if you ask me, a perfectly fitting assessment.


Some Basic Information About Great Egrets

  • Scientific Name: Ardea alba
  • Order: Pelecaniformes
  • Family: Ardeidae (herons, egrets, and bitterns)
  • Conservation Status: Stable
  • Size & Wingspan: Approximately 3 feet tall; 51 to 57-inch wingspan
  • Lifespan: 15 to 22 years


There’s a reason the Great Egret is the official symbol of the National Audubon Society, one of the largest and oldest non-profit environmental organizations in the world. This bird is positively fascinating and the unequivocal embodiment of raw perfection. Their existence is yet another testament to the beauty Mother Nature has to offer.

Great Egrets, also known as Great White Egrets, are large, stately all-white birds with pointed wings, long black legs, lanky toes, webbed feet, a protracted “S” shaped neck, and a sharp-but-stout pointy burnt yellow beak. On average, they weigh just over two pounds, stand at around three feet tall, although sometimes bigger, and have a wingspan of nearly five feet.

For a size comparison, think larger than a Reddish Egret but a little smaller than a Wood Stork. Or for a more familiar analogy, about the size of a goose, although often slightly bigger.

In flight, a Great Egret retracts its slim neck, legs drawn-out away from its terse tailfeathers. This wader moves with slow but intentional wingbeats. With two strong pumps every second, they can coast the skyline up to 25 miles per hour—an impressive feat to say the least. The average trained bicyclist can’t even pedal that fast!

Great Egret Breeding Plumage

During breeding season, Great Egrets’ standout significantly among other wetland birds. They dawn the most magnificent feathers on their backs, called aigrettes, similar to a peacock, but more immaculate and a crispy snow white in color. These of course are the very plumes that almost made them extinct. Additionally, their lores—the area around their bills— turn a bright neon green, and my-oh-my does the camera love it! The word ‘stunning’ simply doesn’t do it justice.

In full breeding dress, the Great Egret could rock a runway! And sadly, until the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, they did. But, as a once-upon-a-time fashion photographer, I can tell you whole-heartedly that the birds wear it better.

Adults vs. Juvenile Plumage

Male and female adult Great Egrets look identical in color but differ slightly in size, with the lady being a tad bit smaller. Likewise with juveniles, there is no real difference aside from being much smaller than mom and dad.

Great Egret Calls

Great Egrets may not be social, but they are great communicators and enlist several sounds outside of traditional mating calls—more on that later. They’re usually low, harsh croaks, or if guarding their territory, an intense yelling noise, followed by a leap and a smack with their beak.


Like many of the waterbirds I photograph, Great Egrets are native to Florida. In South Florida, our warm, balmy year-round temperatures, diverse landscapes, and abundance of open water and marine life is the perfect place for them live, forage, and breed. Their yearly reach can extend along the East Coast, as far as Massachusetts, as well as the Gulf Coasts of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. Depending on the season, whether its migratory, breeding, or year-round they touch nearly every state in the U.S., parts of Central America, almost all of South America, areas of Eurasia, Africa, and even Australia. World travelers indeed!

These graceful waders tend to live in mixed colonies high up in nests, thickets, and shrubs in and around coastal shores, isolated islands, waterways, mudflats, wetlands, salt and freshwater marshes, and ponds. When foraging, they favor quiet open waters along shallow shores, swamps, estuaries, rivers, lagoons, tidal flats, canals, lakes, streams, ponds, and flooded fields.


Where Can I See a Great Egret in Florida?

These are probably one of the most common birds you’ll see in Florida. Although often confused with the Great White Heron, Great Egrets are easily distinguishable from other wetland birds. They do share a striking resemblance with snowy egrets but based on their size alone even the most inexperienced birdwatcher can differentiate between the two.

One of the best places to see a Great Egret would be in and around the wetlands of the Florida Everglades. These large, pure white egrets can be seen meticulously wading or standing calmly in shallow ponds or brackish marshes, often towering above their peers, and staring closely at the water as it preys on fish and marine life below.


Behavior and Feeding

Unlike other birds within the heron and egret family, Great Egrets don’t forage at night, but they’re still extremely efficient fishers. These large and refined aviators hunt for food during the day, often alone, but sometimes in mixed groups with ibises, herons, cormorants, and other egret species. They employ many of the same tactics that other waterbirds use when looking for food, which mainly involves slowly walking over quiet waters and stalking fish beneath the surface before abruptly snatching it with a jab of their daggerlike bills.

They also use their feet to rake the sediment below before suddenly thrusting at the water to capture their prey. Occasionally, you’ll see a Great Egret following behind cattle or livestock, in effort to catch and eat any insects they may kick-up, a tactic used frequently by the Cattle Egret.

Something I find interesting is that they tend to forage in areas where other birds have already found or are searching for food, a practice known as commensal feeding.

For example, they might hunt next to a Roseate Spoonbill, allow them to stir up fish below and then quickly snatch what comes to surface that may be out of reach for the spoonbill. In most cases, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship because the Great Egret is able to warn the smaller, prudent bird of nearby predators. You know what they say, “work smarter, not harder!”



What Do Great Egrets Eat?

Great Egrets are carnivorous piscivores, generally dining on small fish in both salt and freshwater but they’re certainly not picky. They also eat lizards, snakes, aquatic insects, frogs, salamanders, tadpoles, grasshoppers, beetles, snails, crabs, shrimp, newts, crayfish, and even small rodents like mice, squirrels, and rats.

Nesting and Displays

In Florida, Great Egrets can breed year-round, but typically mating takes place from May to August. They are seasonally monogamous birds, meaning that after breeding season concludes, they leave their partner and find a new one the following year. Great Egrets aren’t particularly social, but they do nest in colonies with several other heron egret species.

Great Egret Nests

Great Egret nests are usually high-up, 20 to 40 feet off the ground. They’re substantial in size, measuring approximately three feet wide and about 12 inches deep.

The base consists of large sticks and twigs, woven together with other smaller sticks and stems. The male finds his ideal nesting spot and begins construction on his own, once he finds a suitable partner, she helps him finish the rest, although he’s perfectly capable of finishing on his own—and sometimes, he does.

Nesting and Courting Displays

As I just mentioned, the male finds the homesite and after the initial structural construction, he begins to woo the ladies with bizarre and outlandish displays. If you’re familiar with my bird blog, of course this comes as no surprise. Using his beautiful long nuptial plumes that extend long past his tail to enhance his display, he partakes in up to 16 different rituals.

These include specific postures and stances, twig shaking, preening his wings, snapping his beak, stretching his neck, and bowing. In return, a keen female responds by preening her own wings, taking circular flights around the nesting site, and often chasing away other females trying to get his attention. 

Once he’s chosen his new mate, they finish building and continue a shortened version of these quirky displays each time they meet each other back at the nest.

These intricate dances are one of my favorite things to capture—ask any seasoned bird photographer, I’m sure they’ll tell you the same!

Great Egrets make a number of sounds, mostly during mating season and when trying to establish new territories. They consist of nasally squawks and hoarse croaking, as well as bill snapping. 

Eggs, Parenting, and Maturation

Great Egrets are involved parents. Mating pairs of Great Egrets lay an average three to four eggs in a season, but sometimes more, and sometimes less. In color, eggs are a pastel teal green and about 1.6 inches wide and 2.3 inches in length—approximately the same size as an ordinary chicken egg. Both the male and female egret take turns incubating their brood, a period that lasts 23 to 26 days.

After the eggs have hatched, both parents continue to feed them using the regurgitation method of catching food, swallowing it, and spitting it back up partially digested. At around three to four weeks, chicks start attempting to walk out of the nest. In a few short weeks, they’ll be able to fly! At around the age of two or three, they begin to start breeding their own families.

If you’re wanting to get a look at a Great Egret rookery for yourself, just listen. Nestling calls sound like duck calls, so if you can’t smell the hatchling colony, you’ll almost definitely be able to hear them.

Life Cycle

The oldest living Great Egret ever recorded was 22 years old and lived in Ohio but living to maturity isn’t easy. Chicks are aggressive with one another in the nest and so the fight for food can get intense. Sure, all hatchlings have to worry about predators outside the nest, but Great Egret chicks also have to be leery of their own brothers and sisters. Fights often lead to death and mom and dad won’t stop it. On top of that, if food is scarce, babies must sometimes fight with their own parents. This makes the first couple weeks of their life more dangerous than most.

If younglings do make it to weeks three and four, they still need to worry about the normal predators like raccoons, hawks, and horned owls. Foraging adult Great Egrets are also susceptible to attacks by alligators, coyotes, and even larger hawks.

Manmade Threats to Great Egrets

Not unlike humans, there are other things aside from natural predators and sibling rivalries that Great Egrets and other wildlife have to worry about, namely climate change and loss of habitats.

Stemming mostly from manmade problems, data has shown that even though their species seems to be currently stable, there has been a 90% decline in breeding Great Egret populations in the Florida Everglades alone. Illegal toxic waste disposal, dredging, urbanization of nature preserves, lack of water conservation, pesticides, lead poisoning, and agricultural run-offs are leading to the steady destruction of habitats and populations across the globe. Without intervention, we can only expect the places and animals we know and love to become obsolete.

Great Egret Photography in South Florida

My favorite thing about bird photography isn’t just taking the actual pictures, it’s also about sharing what I’ve learned with other wildlife enthusiasts and nature-loving communities. Sure, some folks come to Florida and think solely about our exquisite, never-ending coastlines and beautiful turquoise beaches, but for me? It’s the wildlife that calls our state home and the ability to share my passion with people like you.

If you loved my pictures, check out the Dan Power Gallery online store where you can find all these images and many more available for purchase in a variety of frame options, sizes, and surfaces.

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