Great Egret

Ardea alba

  • Version: 2.0 — Published April 21, 2011
  • Donald A. McCrimmon Jr., John C. Ogden, and G. Thomas Bancroft

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Great Egret in North and Middle America.

Distribution of the Great Egret in North and Middle America and western West Indies. This species also breeds in South America and in Europe, Asia, and the Australasian region. See text for details.

Breeding Great Egret, Moonglow Dairy, Monterey, CA, 31 March.

Note the extensive robe of fine dorsal plumes, but lack of any head plumes. Great Egrets build stick nests in trees; here in a Eucalyptus grove next to a brackish slough.

Great Egret in basic (nonbreeding) plumage, Arcata, CA, 4 April.

Throughout most of the year Great Egrets have plain yellowish lores. During the height of the breeding season, however, they turn a bright lime green. The following is a link to this photographer's website:

Intermediate in size between the larger day herons and the smaller egrets, the elegant, stately Great Egret, in its dazzling white plumage, is widely recognized in North America and elsewhere. In the Western Hemisphere, the decimation of populations of this species and other wading birds during the early twentieth century by overhunting helped spark the formation of conservation and environmental organizations, as well as laws protecting these birds. Indeed, the Great Egret is the organizational symbol for one of the oldest such groups in the United States, the National Audubon Society.

This cosmopolitan species inhabits freshwater, estuarine, and marine wetlands, nests colonially, and feeds in aggregations as well as solitarily. The breeding behavior of the species has been extensively investigated (Wiese 1976b; Mock Mock 1978b, Mock 1980b), as has its foraging ecology in the southeastern United States (Kushlan Kushlan 1976a, Kushlan 1978b, Kushlan 1978c; Bancroft et al. 1990b; Bancroft et al. 1994). The nesting ecology of the Great Egret has also received significant attention (Pratt Pratt 1970, Pratt 1972; Mcvaugh 1972; Maxwell and Kale 1977; McCrimmon 1978; Beaver et al. 1980; Mock Mock 1980b, Mock 1984; Pratt and Winkler 1985). Its adaptability as a generalist has doubtless contributed to its global distribution and wide-ranging recovery from previous North American population decimation. (Analyses of changes in contemporary populations of the species in the southeastern United States are found in Ogden 1978a and Ogden 1994 and McCrimmon et al. 1997 .)

Relationships among the Ardeidae (herons) have been revised or relisted several times, and both the common and scientific names have changed correspondingly. The Great Egret has been classified in the past under several genera, including its own monotypic genus, Casmerodius; with other egrets in Egretta; or allied with other large herons in Ardea. English names used in the past in North America include American Egret and Common Egret, while in the Old World it has been known as Great White Egret (or even Great White Heron). Over its broad worldwide range, 4 subspecies are recognized. This account focuses on populations in the Americas (Ardea alba egretta; see American Ornithologists' Union 1998a).

Recommended Citation

McCrimmon Jr., D. A., J. C. Ogden, and G. T. Bancroft (2011). Great Egret (Ardea alba), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.