Reddish Egret

Egretta rufescens

  • Version: 2.0 — Published January 1, 2002
  • Peter E. Lowther and Richard T. Paul

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Reddish Egret.

This species breeds locally within the West Indies.

Adult Reddish Egret, dark morph

; photographer William L. Newton

Adult Reddish Egret, white morph

; photographer William L. Newton

As we approached the next island, I saw twenty or thirty pairs of Herons, some of which were pure white, others of a light blue colour, but so much larger than the [Little] Blue Heron, Ardea coerulea, that I asked the pilot what they were, when he answered, "the very fellows I want to shew you, and you may soon see them close enough, as you and I will shoot a few by way of amusement." Before half an hour had elapsed, more than a dozen were lying at my feet. Some of them were as white as driven snow, the rest of a delicate purplish tint, inclining to grey on the back and wings, with heads and necks of a curious reddish colour. . . .

The Reddish Egret is a constant resident on the Florida Keys, to which it is so partial at all seasons that it never leaves them. Some individuals are seen as far east as Cape Florida, and westward along the Gulf of Mexico. Whether it may ever betake itself to fresh water I cannot say, but I never found one in such a situation. It is a more plump bird for its size than most other Herons, and in this respect resembles the Night Heron and the Yellow-crowned species, but possesses all the gracefulness of the tribe to which it belongs. In walking it lifts its feet high, and proceeds at a quiet pace, but sometimes briskly; it alights with ease on trees, and walks well on the larger branches. It rarely feeds from the edges of the water, but resorts to the shallows of the extensive mud or sand flats, so numerous about the keys. There, twenty or thirty, sometimes as many as a hundred, may be seen wading up to the heel (or knee-joint as it is usually called) in pursuit of prey, or standing in silence awaiting the approach of an animal on which it feeds, when it strikes it, and immediately swallows it, if not too large; but if so, it carries it to the shore, beats it, and tears it to pieces. . . . These birds remain on the flats thus employed, until the advance of the tide forces them to the land.  John James Audubon, 1843: 140–141, The Birds of America

As an inhabitant almost exclusively of coastal lagoons of the Gulf Coast states, the Reddish Egret is North America's rarest and least known ardeid. This species was nearly extirpated from the United States by plume hunters prior to 1900. Since then, populations have recovered, and U.S. populations currently total about 2,000 pairs; less is known about numbers in Mexico or the Caribbean. The species is dimorphic: the dark morph predominates in the United States and Mexico, with the white morph more common in the Bahamas and Greater Antilles. The Reddish Egret is remarkable for its extremely active foraging behavior, employing running, hopping, flying, and open-wing techniques to locate and pursue schools of small fish across barren shallow flats.

The Reddish Egret was included in a comparative study of heron behavior by Meyerriecks (Meyerriecks 1960a). Only a general overview of its behavior and breeding biology is known; little information is available on the details of growth and development of young.

Recommended Citation

Lowther, P. E. and R. T. Paul (2002). Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.