Reddish Egret

Egretta rufescens

  • Version: 2.0 — Published April 8, 2019
  • Lianne M. Koczur, M. Clay Green, Bart M. Ballard, 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.

Dark morph Reddish Egret (31 January).

Medium-sized heron with two color morphs (white and dark). Dark-morph adult neutral gray, with head and neck chestnut to cinnamon; crown, nape, neck, and upper breast with shaggy lanceolate plumes; scapular plumes long and filamentous during breeding. Bill is bicolored, pink at base with third to half of tip black; bill is blackish in first year and can become duller in nonbreeding adults.

© Vince Capp , Florida , United States , 31 January 2018

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, The Birds of America (1: 140–141)

The Reddish Egret is a charismatic species that inhabits coastal estuaries and lagoons of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. The species’ affinity for barren shallow flats and its extremely active foraging behavior make it easily identifiable among other sympatric herons. Its conspicuous foraging behavior includes a combination of running, hopping, flying, foot-stirring, and wing-flicking, among others. The Reddish Egret is dimorphic in plumage—the dark morph adorned with reddish head and neck, and slate gray body, and the white morph with entirely white plumage. There appears to be a north–south gradient in the distribution of color morphs, with the dark morph being more prevalent in northern portions of its range (United States and Mexico) and the white morph being more frequent in southern portions of the range (Bahamas and Greater Antilles).

The Reddish Egret is North America’s rarest and least studied ardeid. Populations declined greatly in the 1800s due to plume hunting, and the species was nearly extirpated from the United States by 1900. Populations have rebounded to some degree, and global estimates range from 7,000 (2) to 11,000 mature individuals (3). However, much is unknown regarding abundance and population trends in Mexico and throughout the Caribbean and it remains a species of conservation concern throughout its range.

Interest in the conservation of the Reddish Egret over the last decade has stimulated research collaborations and promoted focused international conservation efforts to better understand and manage this charismatic wading bird. However, gaps in our knowledge still exist for certain aspects of its ecology and for portions of its range.

Recommended Citation

Koczur, L. M., M. C. Green, B. M. Ballard, P. E. Lowther, and R. T. Paul (2019). Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.