The Really Stunning Courtship Behavior of the Great Egret Part II

“There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.”

Robert Wilson Lynd, ‘The Blue Lion; And Other Essays’.

Last year, I wrote about one of the most fascinating bird courtship behaviors that residents and visitors to Florida can observe in the state’s many wetlands, including the most famous of all, the Everglades.

A selection of photographs I shot while exploring well-known wetlands in South Florida between late winter and early spring are featured in this blog article. And while I believe the photographs convey a good sense of how breathtaking this process is, I regret not having filmed some video.

The courtship and mating behavior of these birds is full of intricate movements designed to attract a mate while also halting the advances of the competition. Unfortunately, even if our cameras can capture many frames per second, it is nearly impossible to freeze time and capture every single movement of this dance.

Aside from the stunning displays, the Great Egret’s mating ritual is an annual extravaganza that includes the development of special feathers and color changes.

At the start of the breeding season, male and female great egrets grow long ornamental plumes called aigrettes. These aigrettes, which extend beyond the bird’s tail, are critical to the success of the courtship displays. At the same time, the egret’s lower neck and breast are covered in elongated and slightly lanceolate feathers, giving it the appearance of a wedding gown.

That’s not all, though. The colors on the bald parts of the egret’s head become increasingly vibrant, similar to a bride wearing make-up. The bill turns a bright orange-yellow, and the lores (the skin around the eye) and eye-ring turn lime-green or turquoise-green. Then, with their “nuptial” feathers in place, the birds prepare for their coupling.

The males are among the first to arrive at the colony. They are in charge of selecting the nesting site and starting its construction. Once the partnership is established, the female will assist the male in nest construction. 

The great egret has over 16 different behavioral displays in its repertoire. Only a few of them are more visible during courtship, with the aigrettes, the spectacular scapular plumes, playing an essential role in amplifying the optical effects of the performances.

During courtship, males use the stretch, snap, bow, wing-preen, twig shake, circle flight, and inter-display posture. These demonstrations are distinguished by various movements using their unique plumes. * If interested in learning more about these displays, please refer to the table below.

This slideshow from a previous post shows stretch, bow, wing-preen, twig shake, inter-display posture, and ritualized circle flight.

Simultaneously, females will send signals of interest by engaging in various behaviors such as wing preening, circle flight, and the supplanting attack, which is primarily used to displace other females.

The couple will continue to greet each other at the nest by performing a reduced version of the courtship ritual.

This beautiful and intricate dance is one of many examples of nature’s wisdom, and it is a real treat for birders and bird photographers all over the world.

Although I am a wildlife photographer and far superior at it than at videography, I believe that such animal behavior should also be captured and shared through film. As a result, I invite you to watch this short video, which includes all of the above-mentioned behaviors and a female ignoring a male and a pair of great egrets building the nest together.

About the Different Displays

Display and DescriptionContextPerformerReference
Interdisplay Stance: Bill pointed downward, aigrettes and crest erected, side-to-side swaying
Nest defense, intervals prior to display bouts
Mock 1978b
Erect Stance: Bill slightly down, extends neck and erects feathers of head and neckDisturbance and defense, male advertisement and intrapair interactionsM, FWiese 1976b; Mock 1978b, Mock 1980b
Stab-Crouch: Crest and aigrettes erected, strikes with closed bill, with rapid leg flexion to produce full crouch
Nest defense, conspecific female aggression, aggression directed toward other speciesM, FMock 1978b, Mock 1980b
Snap: Neck extended, legs flexed, mandibles snap togetherMale advertising display and by paired egrets prior to first copulationMWiese 1976b; Mock 1978b, Mock 1980b
Wing Preen: Runs bill tip along entire leading edge of 1 wingPrincipally male advertising display, although occasionally performed by femalesM, FWiese 1976b;  Mock 1978b, Mock 1980b
Bow: Head lowered, branch or stick grasped with bill, shallow leg flexMale advertising display and by paired egrets prior to first copulationMWiese 1976b; Mock 1978b, Mock 1980b
Twig-Shaking: Neck extended out and down, stick grasped in mandibles and gently shaken
Principally male advertising display, although occasionally performed by femaleM, FMock 1978b, Mock 1980b
Circle Flight :Takes flight in extended neck posture, retracts neck, flies in circle to point of departureMale display and nonaggressive approach by females
M, F
Wiese 1976b; Mock 1978b, Mock 1980b
Extended Neck: Takes flight with neck extended and bill at upright angleMale display and rejection of male by femaleM, FMock 1978b, Mock 1980b


McCrimmon Jr., D. A., J. C. Ogden, G. T. Bancroft, A. Martínez-Vilalta, A. Motis, G. M. Kirwan, and P. F. D. Boesman (2020). Great Egret (Ardea alba), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Douglas W. Mock; Pair-Formation Displays of the Great Egret, The Condor, Volume 80, Issue 2, 1 April 1978, Pages 159–172,

Wiese , J.H. 709-724 . Courtship and pair formation in the great egret . Auk 93: Wiese , J.H. 1978a 

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