Although the Snowy Egret is a smaller version of its well known cousin, the Great Egret, it’s just as symbolic of the beauty and elegance of the Lowcountry.
It’s easy to tell these two white shorebirds apart. At just two feet tall, the Snowy is a foot shorter than the Great Egret. Other distinctive field marks are a jet-black bill, black legs, and bright yellow feet. There’s also a patch of yellow skin at the very base of the bill.
Snowy Egrets are common sights at lagoons, marshes, beaches, mudflats, and other wetlands. They breed in noisy colonies, frequently with other species of wading birds.
They often forage in mixed groups, too, where they may steal food aggressively from other birds. Their diet comprises a variety of small prey, from fish, frogs, and snails to worms, snakes, insects, and crustaceans.
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If you’ve ever watched Snowy Egrets searching for food, you may have noticed they have a number of tactics at their disposal. In fact, the species has the broadest range of foraging behaviors of any North American egret or heron.
First, there’s the sit-and-wait tactic: standing absolutely still and waiting for prey to appear. More often, Snowy Egrets wade slowly through shallow water, periodically snapping up food items with their beaks.
Or they may take a more lively approach, spreading and twirling their wings while pursuing schools of fish at top speed.
Ornithologists have also seen egrets use their feet to make stirring, raking, or paddling movements in the bottom sediments, flushing out small fish. There’s even an aerial variant of this behavior, in which the bird hovers over shallow water, stirs it with one or both feet, then plunges in after any disturbed prey.
Occasionally Snowy Egrets even forage on dry land, following along after livestock much like Cattle Egrets do and seizing insects flushed by grazing.
Studies suggest that the wide repertoire of foraging behaviors shown by Snowy Egrets is correlated with what they’re eating. Birds switch feeding tactics depending on habitat and the abundance or scarcity of preferred foods.
Flocks of Snowy Egrets weren’t always common in the Southeast. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the species was hunted to near extinction for the male’s showy breeding feathers, which were sold at high prices to adorn women’s hats.
Fortunately, such practices were eventually prohibited by law, and sanctuaries were also established for Snowy Egrets and other shorebirds.
Since then, populations have been recovering and, despite threats of pollution and habitat encroachment, the species’ summer breeding range in North America has been slowly expanding northward.
Snowy Egrets are residents here in the Lowcountry, so we get to watch these fascinating birds year-round.
A note of thanks:
Thanks to Steve Mix for pointing out that the moth pictured in my Aug. 27, 2017, column is most likely Callosamia angulifera, or a related, similar species to Hyalophora cecropia.
Vicky McMillan, a retired biologist formerly at Colgate University,lives on Hilton Head Island. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.