I’m in the Plume for Love

Great Egrets abound in breeding season

By Susan Campbell

Spring fever is upon us; it’s time for the breeding season! Here in coastal North Carolina we have some 16 species of waders that spend the spring and summer nesting and raising the next generation. The most noticeable one is unarguably the great egret, mistakenly referred to as a “white crane.” This large wading bird has all-white plumage and a long, pointed, bright yellow bill and black legs.

Individuals or small groups of great egrets are drawn to bodies of water both small and large. Egrets stalk small fish, frogs, grayfish and other small prey in the shallows. Occasionally they will snatch a snake, small bird or large insect, as well. Great egrets will roost in thick, older pines over water, where ground predators are not likely to reach them. In our area, they may join dozens or even hundreds of other individuals, finding safety in numbers.

During the breeding period, from March through June, great egrets sport long plumes along their backs. At the turn of the 20th century, the species was nearly wiped out as a result of the millinary trade. Plume hunters decimated rookeries throughout the coastal U.S. In fact, at the verge of their extinction, the egret became the symbol of the Audubon Society. As the oldest and largest bird conservation organization in the United States, it was originally founded to protect birds from being killed for their feathers. At present day, as with most of our wading species, great egrets have made a strong recovery.

Great egrets are found in heronries, most often alongside great blue herons, throughout the Coastal Plain. Nesting habitat consists of sturdy trees usually on islands, free of mammalian predators. Simple stick platforms are constructed by the males and placed high in the canopy. Nests can be quite large, up to a few feet across and a foot or so deep. One to six eggs are laid and incubated for almost four weeks by the female. The young are then fed by both parents for about a month before they are capable of flight. If there is a shortage of food, aggressive larger siblings are known to kill smaller ones.

Fledglings may follow their parents for a few weeks or may become independent quickly, if food resources are scarce. Both adult and young great egrets will disperse from their breeding areas to find new feeding areas. They are often seen in late summer on inland lakes, even in our mountain counties. Breeding individuals may be mixed in with migrants around lakes, beaver ponds, creek or river floodplains, even water hazards on golf courses. Regardless, these pale giants do not tend to stay in one place for very long at any point during the year. So, should you come upon an egret, enjoy it because it likely will not be around more than a day or two at most, sometimes just a few blissful hours. 

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos at susan@ncaves.com.

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