Photo taken at the Venice Rookery in Venice Florida
The Great White Egret , is a magnificent wading bird and one of the four subspecies of Great Egret (Ardea alba). Second only to the Great Blue Heron in size, it is one of the largest of the wading birds found in inhabiting the Florida Everglades. The Great White Egret cannot be mistaken feeding & nesting in the fresh and saltwater marshes of the Everglades standing over 4 feet in height with a wingspan of over 50 inches. Similar in appearance to the Snowy Egret, excepting for black feet and its tremendous size, the Great White Egret has a stout yellow bill and long black legs. They also have something in common with the Fishing Cat- 2 things actually. piscivorous or “ichthyophagous” (fish eating) and have webbed feet! Excellent fishermen among birds, they stand motionless in the shallows using a foot foraging method to rake and probe the bottom attracting fish that are quickly snapped up with their quick bill reflex in a matter of milliseconds. It is said this feeding pattern is the fastest motion made by any organism living in the Everglades.
Great White Egrets, primarily solitary birds, do congregate during mating season and can often be found nesting with other species of heron. Both males and females exhibit long ornamental back plumes during the mating season. It was during mating time many were hunted to near extinction. Nests are built in platform fashion 30-40 feet off the ground with females laying 1 to 6 blue-green eggs. Incubation duties are shared by both parents. Baby Great White Egrets hatch out in approximately 3 weeks covered in a downy coat, exhibiting sometimes intense sibling rivalry with fledglings and they are ready to leave the nest in only 6-7 weeks.
The Florida Everglades has over 350 species of birds reported in sightings, 200 of which are migratory. In the late 1800s naturalist John James Audubon traveled to visit the fragile Everglades ecosystem where these migratory birds have been nesting and feeding for thousands of years. Public outrage was growing to stop the mass commercial hunting of our Nation’s wading birds for the plume industry and the Great White Egret was high on the targeted hit list. It is fitting the Great White Egret is the symbol of the National Audubon Society, one of the oldest environmental organizations in North America. The Audubon Society was founded to protect all species of wading birds from being killed for their feathers. It is amazing that it took over 300 Great White Egrets to yield just one kilo of feathers with plumes selling for twice the value of their weight in gold.
In the 1930s there were over 250,000 wading birds in the Everglades. Recent population statistics from the 1990s show there to be only 2,200 wading birds remaining. This scientific data shows that the Florida Everglades has lost over 90% of its wading birds in the last few decades. Dwindling bird populations are due to a combination of detrimental factors, most of them man-made. These include pesticide application, agricultural chemical run-off, industrial mercury, lead, and illegal toxic waste dumping, draining, dredging, poor fresh water management and urbanization all of which has had a negative affect on their habitat. Pink Flamingos feeding on shrimp along the shallows of the Florida Keys were a common sight just 10-15 years ago and now they can rarely be found.
This severe decline in population serves as testimony to the values of conservationists John James Audubon and Marjory Stoneman Douglas , also known as the “Mother of the Everglades” who spent her life trying to make the public aware of the need to protect Florida Everglades. Their work on a historic conservation basis was so valuable it continues to this day to protect the endemic and endangered bird species of our Nation’s wetlands. From these great environmentalists we learn the wisdom of leaving nature’s “River of Grass” alone to care for its own.