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Egrets belong to the order Ciconiiformes along with herons, ibises, and storks. These birds are wading birds with generally long legs, necks, and bills, as well as short tails. Necks that can bend vertically but not laterally characterize them. The sixth neck vertebra is especially long, causing the familiar "S" shape to their necks. Herons and egrets have comb-like serrations on the edges of their middle claws, which help to preen feathers inaccessible by their bills. Many egret species can be identified by wispy, lace-like plumes (called aigrette feathers), which the males sport during the breeding season. Most are white in color.
Great egrets are approximately 84-102 cm (33-40 in.) tall and have a wingspan up to 150 cm (59 in.)
Great egrets weigh about 900-1,360 g (32-48 oz.)
Fishes, small snakes, amphibians, and invertebrates
Many egret species are widely distributed. Great egrets (
Cas merdodius alba
) are common through much of the United States, as well as Central and South America, Africa, Australia, Asia, and some parts of Europe. Once native only to Africa, cattle egrets (
) have been spotted in Florida since the 1950s. It is believed that they traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to South America in the 1930s and have recently made their way up to North America.
3 species are listed as Appendix III in part of their range, including the cattle egret and the great egret
2 species of egret are listed as Vulnerable, neither is found in North America
The diets of egrets vary from species to species, but most prefer fishes, small snakes, amphibians, and invertebrates. Snowy egrets (
) have specialized feet that may aid them in collecting food. In addition to stirring up the bottom of lakes and ponds, the bright yellow color of the feet may attract small fishes closer to them. Egrets capture prey with their beaks. Cattle egrets follow cattle to pick off insects disturbed by their movements. Snowy egrets may imitate cattle egrets.
ECOLOGY AND CONSERVATION
In the early 1900s, human feather collectors devastated species such as the snowy egret. Used for fashion clothing and hats, their aigrette feathers were worth up to $30 an ounce - twice the price of gold at the turn of the century. Several laws, such as the Migratory Bird Act, which ended plume hunting in the United States, now protect them.
Perrins, Dr. Christopher M. and Dr. Alex L.A. Middleton, Eds.
The Encyclopedia of Birds
. New York: Facts on File Pub. 1985.
Perrins, Dr. Christopher M.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Birds: The Definitive Reference to Birds of the World
. New York: Prentice Hall Press. 1990.
Gough, G.A., Sauer, J.R., Iliff, M. Patuxent Bird Identification Infocenter. 1998. Version 97.1. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.