The Stunning Courtship Behavior of The Great Egret, an Unmissable Spectacle!


Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all

Emily Dickinson

Mating Season Begins

Every year between February and April, birds come together to procreate. As a result, South Florida becomes a paradise for dozens of bird species that get together for the most critical tasks of their lives—make babies!

Many different wading birds invade marshes, wetlands, and other freshwater and marine habitats, ready to find a mate, build a nest, copulate, incubate and raise their chicks until they are old enough to take care of themselves. It is nature at its best.

A couple of great egrets that decided to couple up

This annual spectacle is not only extraordinary because of the beautiful mating rituals—which include changing feathers and colors and outrageous displays—but because the plume hunters almost decimated many of these species of birds during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Hunted to Extinction

Feathers have been part of humans’ wardrobes for as long as clothes have been. However, in the 1870s, wearing hats ornamented with feathers became a symbol of social status and wealth for women, and the demand for plumes increased exponentially.

By the 1900s, around five million birds worldwide were being killed every year for the fashion industry. The plume trade had obliterated several species of birds, including snowy and great egrets. At one point, the white, magnificent plumes of these birds during the mating season were worth more than gold. According to several sources, in 1886, these plumes were valued at $32 per ounce, twice the price of gold at the time. Poachers killed over 95% of the great egrets of North America to satisfy the relentless demand of the fashion industry.

At the end of the 19 century, two trailblazing Boston socialites, Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall, outraged over the slaughter of millions of birds, organized a massive boycott against the plume trade.

Great egret in all its glory with regular plumes

In 1896 they founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and in less than two years, similar organizations began popping up all over the country.

Their efforts led to the formation of what later became the National Audubon Society (1905) and the passing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 (16 USC. 703–712, MBTA). The MTBA is still one of the strongest laws protecting North American birds.

The conservation efforts led to the creation of several sanctuaries and wildlife refuges across the country. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey (1966-2014), the great egret populations rebounded to most of their original range. In 1953 it became the official symbol of the National Audubon Society.

About the great egret

Great egret concentrating on finding its next meal

The elegant great egret, Ardea alba, is the largest of all egrets and is an actual cosmopolitan bird. We can find it on almost every continent. There are four subspecies: Ardea alba alba is the Eurasian subspecies, inhabiting most of Europe, Asia, North, and Central Africa. The African subspecies Ardea alba melanorhynchos resides in Sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar. The Australasian subspecies Ardea alba modesta lives in the Indian subcontinent parts of China, New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand. And finally, we have Ardea alba egretta, the American egret, which has an astonishing range that extends from southern Canada to Chile and Argentina and everywhere in between.

Great egrets from the interior of North America and the northeast coast spend the winter in the southern United States and the Caribbean.

Great egret foraging

Although great egrets eat mainly fish, they are opportunistic eaters, and their diet includes invertebrates like crustaceans and amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, and even other birds.

Their foraging behavior is usually stand-and-wait, and wait, they do. Egrets and herons wade slowly, and if they see something interesting, they stop and concentrate for minutes until something worth eating shows up and then snap; plunge their heads into the water, and more times than not, they will come out with a decent size pray trapped in their beaks. If you want to photograph them in the act, you need to arm yourself with a lot of patience and carefully look at the bird’s movements. With time, you will learn the signs that will tell you it has found something worth catching. However, depending on their circumstances, they can also walk quickly, dive, flycatch, and hover in flight.

Now, the most exciting part about the natural history of this magnificent bird happens during its breeding cycle, and that is when the show begins.

And the Stunning Spectacle Begins

Great egret with its courtship colors and “nuptial plumes”

At the very beginning of the breeding cycle, great egrets, male or female, will grow long ornamental plumes, also known as aigrettes. These aigrettes extend beyond the bird’s tail and play a vital role during courtship displays. Elongated and slightly lanceolate feathers also cover the lower neck and breast of the egret. And with their “nuptial” feathers in place, the birds prepare themselves for their wedding.

But that’s not all. Like a bride wearing make-up, the colors in the bare parts of the egret’s head become more intense. The bill color changes to a strong orange-yellow, and the lores (the skin around the eye) and eye-ring turn to a lime-green or turquoise-green, especially in males.

Great egret in all its glory

Now let’s be clear: great egrets are not the only birds that change colors, develop unique plumes, and engage in sophisticated courtship behavior during the breeding season. But, as it happens, birds’ courtship rituals are probably the most exceptional in the animal kingdom. And the great egret’s performance, as magnificent as it is, doesn’t even make it to the ten most amazing performances category.

However, it is still spectacular and relatively easy to observe. You don’t need to travel to exotic or out-of-the-beaten-path places to watch it in action. Here in Florida, you can find them in one of the many wetlands and marshes in the region. You just need to know when to go and, as I mentioned before, quietly wait and be patient.

Great egrets coupled and nesting

Great egrets commonly nest in mixed-species-colonies with other species of birds, including other egrets, herons, spoonbills, and ibises. The males are the first to arrive at the colonies, and they select the display areas where they will build the nest with the female. The older birds in the colony take over the sites that offer more protection from predators, and the arriving females spot them. After all, the great egret relies on visual and acoustic signals to attract females and defend its territory from the competition.

Once it selects the area and the females arrive, courtship begins

The great egret has a behavioral repertoire that includes over 16 different displays. And only some of them are more prominent during courtship with the aigrettes, the spectacular scapular plumes, playing a critical role in helping magnify the optical effects of the displays.

The behavioral displays in males during courtship are stretch, snap, bow, wing preen, twig shake, and inter-display stance (see slideshow). These displays are characterized by a series of postures accompanied by beautiful, singular plumes. At the same time, interested females will send signs of attraction by performing their repertoire of behaviors, including wing preening, the ritualized circle flight, and the supplanting attack when trying to get rid of other females.

In this slideshow we can see some of the behaviors performed during courtship: stretch, snap, bow, twig shake, inter-display stance and ritualized circle flight

As soon as the pair forms, they begin building their nest. The couple will continue performing a shortened version of the courtship ritual as a greeting each time they meet at their nest.

This beautiful and elaborate dance is one of the many examples of nature’s wisdom and a real treat for birders and bird photographers worldwide.

Great egret gathering materials for the nest

The process between pairing and laying the first egg lasts between four and ten days. Clutch size (number of eggs in the nest) can be between one to six eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs, and the little bundles of joy hatch around the 26th day.

Great egret turning the eggs, guarding the chicks, and fledgelings

The Future of the Great Egret and other Wading Birds in Florida

The great egret is a very resilient bird. After governments enacted protection laws, this bird made a remarkable recovery across the world.

The number of great egrets nesting in Florida has increased over the years, even though The Everglades, the most important breeding area for wading birds in North America, was wiped out to half of its original size to make room for farms and residential developments.

Hungry chicks and parent feeding the chicks

There is a considerable restoration program underway

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) is a multi-agency, long-term project designed to restore the region’s hydrology and improve the water quality and rehabilitate, preserve and protect natural habitats. The CERP is considered the largest hydrologic restoration project ever undertaken in the United States.

Despite its challenges, projects like the CERP are tremendous efforts to return to nature what has been robbed from it. But, unfortunately, all forms of life will continue to be threatened unless we find an intelligent and efficient way to coexist with all the other creatures that share this planet with us.

Notes:

– The national committee of Audubon Societies was created in 1905

– The Breeding Bird Survey is a long-term, large-scale, international avian monitoring program, initiated in 1966 to track the status and trends of North American bird populations

Aigrettes are feathers composed of a recurved shaft and long barbs without barbules to hold them together giving the plume a very delicate appearance.

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