Snowy Egret

Egretta thula

(c) Howard B. Eskin
  • ARDEIDAE
  • Herons, Bitterns, Egrets
  • Ciconiiformes
  • Garceta pie-dorado, Garza chusmita, Garza nivea
  • Aigrette neigeuse
Introduction
The exquisite Snowy Egret is one of North America's most familiar herons, having staged a rapid comeback after protective legislation was enacted in the early 1900s. Found throughout the Western Hemisphere, these wading birds are delicately built, with snowy white feathers, black legs, and bright yellow feet, which they use to actively stir up prey in the shallow waters of ponds and marshes.
(c) Shawn Carey
Appearance Description
This slender, medium-sized heron has white plumage, a slim black bill, long black legs, and vivid yellow feet. It stands about two feet tall, weighs 13 ounces, and has a three-foot wingspan. Males are slightly larger than females. During the breeding season, adults are adorned with long, delicate plumes on their heads, necks, and backs; their yellow feet and lores (the bare skin between the eyes and bill) become redder.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
Snowy Egrets mainly breed along the coasts, from Oregon and Maine southward, but also in scattered inland sites where suitable wetlands are found. Common in states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, they can also be found in the Caribbean and Central and South America. Their wintering grounds are located along the Atlantic Coast to southern New Jersey, and down into the Bahamas, Cuba, and the Greater Antilles; as well as from the Gulf and Pacific coasts south into Central America.
 
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Habitat
Snowy Egrets forage in many types of aquatic habitats, both freshwater and marine. In North America, they generally prefer shallow, sheltered estuarine sites. These feeding areas include salt marsh pools, tidal channels, shallow bays, and mangroves. In the Caribbean, winter migrants nest and roost in mangroves. Snowy Egrets throughout Central America favor lowland areas near freshwater swamps, lakes, and the mouths of large rivers. Birds in South American prefer coastal mangroves, mudflats, and swamps.
Feeding
The Snowy Egret's varied diet is composed primarily of fish and crustaceans, but also includes snails, snakes, lizards, worms, and both aquatic and terrestrial insects. The bird is an active hunter and employs a greater repertoire of foraging behaviors than any other North American heron. Rather than simply standing still or walking slowly to ambush prey, Snowy Egrets dash through shallow water, quickly changing direction, and using their feet to flush prey from hiding places. Food is also captured through pecking, slow walking, hopping, hovering, dipping, and other "disturb and chase" behaviors.
Reproduction
Breeding takes place in colonies, typically with other egrets and herons. These mixed-species rookeries are often located in isolated, estuarine habitats. Males select nest sites and engage in courtship displays accompanied by loud, raucous calls to attract mates. Common displays include the "stretch," in which the male pumps his body up and down with his bill pointed towards the sky; plume-raising; and circling and tumbling flights. Once pairing takes place, females join in on sexual displays to maintain the pair bond. The female is the primary builder of the nest--a platform of woven twigs and small sticks situated either on the ground or as high as 30 feet up in the trees. The three to six pale green-blue eggs are incubated by both sexes for about 24 days. The chicks usually fledge two weeks after hatching. Young reach reproductive maturity after one to two years.
Migration
A partially migratory species, the Snowy Egret relocates from its northernmost breeding habitats in North America to its winter ranges in the southern United States, Mexico, Central America, South America, the West Indies, and Bermuda. The birds begin their northward migration in early March, then depart again in September for their wintering areas. Birds in parts of Florida, along the southern coastlines, and in the Pacific lowlands are year-round residents.
  • Unknown
  • 1,365,000
  • no current conservation concerns
Population Status Trends
Between 1880 and 1910, the fancy breeding plumage of Snowy Egrets was in great demand by the fashion industry. Market hunting reduced Snowy Egret populations to dangerously low levels. Following the passage of laws that made plume hunting illegal, the species bounced back and expanded into new areas during the mid-20th century. Breeding Bird Surveys and Christmas Bird Counts show overall increases; however, since the late-20th century, Snowy Egret populations have experienced considerable flux, suggesting that the species is vulnerable to environmental threats such as the destruction of coastal wetlands, pollution, and competition with other bird species.
Conservation Issues
Once the victim of aggressive plume hunting, Snowy Egrets have been protected in North America since 1918 under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This legislation prohibited the hunting of egrets for their plumes, and helped them to regain their former levels of abundance. Snowy Egrets today may be threatened by chemical contamination, oil spills, and the decline of the wetland environments they depend upon for food. In Florida, the bird is classified as a "Species of Special Concern," and in Connecticut, it is listed as threatened.
What You Can Do
Protect water quality by eliminating your use of lawn pesticides and inorganic fertilizers, and by properly disposing of used motor oil.
 
Do not closely approach or otherwise disturb nesting Snowy Egret colonies.
 
For actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Parsons, K. C., and T. L. Master. 2000. Snowy Egret (Egretta thula). InThe Birds of North America, No. 489 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000.
Conservation Status References
Parsons, K. C., and T. L. Master. 2000. Snowy Egret (Egretta thula). In The Birds of North America, No. 489 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000.