Some reference books claim that the most widespread member of the heron family is the Black-crowned Night-Heron. Actually, that distinction properly belongs to the Great Egret, which has an extensive breeding range on every continent except Antarctica.
In the late 1800s, Great Egrets and other wading birds were seriously threatened by “plume hunters” who killed them so their feathers could be used in fashion. Citizens in the United States mobilized to save these birds, leading to the formation of the first Audubon Societies and to legislation that would protect all migratory birds. Populations of most of the species involved were able to rebound, and Great Egrets are probably as numerous as ever. In North America they are widespread in the lower 48 states and locally in southeastern Canada. Even where they are rare, such as the northern Rockies region, strays may show up any time during the warmer months.
Six species of egrets and herons that occur regularly in North America can have entirely white feathers. Field marks involving plumage pattern are important for identifying most birds, but they’re useless for these monochrome relatives; instead, we must rely on the shapes of each species and the colors of their unfeathered parts.
With practice, shapes may be the most useful field marks, but the differences are hard to see until you have comparative experience. So, the colors of the bill, bare facial skin, legs, and feet provide the best place to start.
The Great Egret in North and South America can be simply described as having black legs and a yellow bill. On adults, the legs become a slightly more glossy black during courtship season, but this is rarely noticeable. Other changes are more obvious: the bill darkens from pale yellow to orange-yellow, with blackish along the upper ridge, and the bare skin between the bill and the eye changes from dull yellow to bright lime-green. In Eastern Hemisphere populations, the bill turns black during the early part of the breeding season, which can be confusing for globe-trotting birders.
The yellow bill and black legs will rule out most similar species, but young and nonbreeding Cattle Egrets show the same combination. (In fact, the first Cattle Egret ever found in Canada — on a ship off Newfoundland in 1952 — was initially identified as a Great Egret because of those colors.) This is where the importance of shape becomes apparent. The Cattle Egret is stocky, short-legged, thick-necked, and very short-billed compared to most members of its family, and with practice it looks utterly distinctive.
Shape is also very useful in separating Great Egrets from other white egrets, especially at a distance. Probably the most similar bird is the “Great White Heron,” which is currently classified as a Florida subspecies of the Great Blue Heron but which may be treated as a full species in the future. It’s shaped like a bulked-up Great Blue, but to be sure of the ID, check out the legs: pale, not black.
Key field marks
- Long, spearlike bill, at least as long as head
- Bill color varies from dull yellow to orange-yellow
- Lores usually straw-yellow, becoming green during courtship
- Very long neck, obvious when looped back or extended
- Feathers always all white, unless stained by something
- Feet and long legs solidly black
What to look for
Size. The second-largest heron species in North America. Among the white species, only the localized “Great White Heron” of Florida (a subspecies of Great Blue Heron) is larger.
Shape. Very long neck and legs contribute to a statuesque appearance.
Plumage. Feathers all white at all ages and all seasons. During winter and spring, adults develop long, filmy plumes on upperparts but not on head.
Bill. Long bill is pale yellow for most of year, becoming more orange-yellow with a dark upper ridge in breeding season.
Legs. Long legs, extending far beyond end of tail in flight. Feet and legs black.
Tall and elegant, the Great Egret is a classic sight in shallow waters over much of North America and around the world. Its yellow bill and black legs make for good field marks up close, but with experience it can be identified at a distance by shape alone. Studying the shapes of birds at every opportunity is a good way to improve ID skills. On this bird, notice the long, filmy courtship plumes, extending from the upperparts well past the end of the tail. Most adults show these from winter through spring, although they abrade and wear away fairly quickly. Unlike some other egrets, Great Egrets have no plumes or elongated feathers on their heads.
At the height of breeding season, Cattle Egrets have patches of rich buff on the plumage, their legs are pale pink, and the bill brightens from yellow to reddish, so that they look quite ornate overall. This November bird still shows traces of buff, but many in winter have completely white feathers, black legs, and yellow bills, suggesting the field marks of Great Egret. Shape differences provide some of the best distinctions. The Cattle Egret’s bill is extremely short, so that the feathering on the underside appears to extend out more than half its length. Its legs and neck are also much shorter than those of Great Egret: It never duplicates the statuesque appearance of its larger relative.
Field guide treatments of Reddish Egret often focus on the pink-based bill and shaggy plumage of the breeding adults, and the erratic, dashing feeding behavior that it often exhibits. But a white-morph individual outside the breeding season can be surprisingly easy to overlook among other white egrets. At a distance, it might be mistaken for Great Egret because of its overall shape. Up close, its dark bill will distinguish it, but it might be confused with Snowy Egret. The bill of the Reddish Egret is thick at the base and stays thick for most of its length, tapering only at the tip. Its lores are gray, while those of the Snowy Egret are almost always yellow.
Although some guides treat it as a mere color morph, the “Great White Heron” of southern Florida is more than that. At a minimum, it is at least a distinct subspecies of the Great Blue, and it may be regarded as a full species again in the future, as it was for many years in the past. With its white plumage and pale bill, it could be passed off as a Great Egret, but it is larger with a thicker head and a more massive bill. It has a couple of short plumes on the head, which the Great Egret lacks. For a confirming field mark, its legs are pale, varying from yellow to pinkish, but never black.
The great size of the Great Egret is evident in flight and emphasized by the deep bulge of the folded neck, the long legs trailing beyond the end of the tail, the long, broad wings, and the relatively slow, ponderous wingbeats. Seen in pure silhouette in flight, it looks more like a Great Blue Heron than one of the smaller egrets. Like the Great Blue, when going from place to place, the Great Egret often flies quite high overhead. This bird, photographed at the peak of its breeding color, has rich green on the lores (between the bill and the eye), and the bill has darkened from pale yellow to orange-yellow, with a black upper ridge.
Snowy Egrets are found alongside Great Egrets over much of North America, although they are somewhat less tolerant of cool climates. Much smaller than Great Egrets, they’re usually separated by their black bills and their contrasting yellow feet and mostly black legs. However, any bird that wades in muddy places can have its legs (and bill) discolored or smudged, and these colors can be hard to see at a distance anyway, so it’s important to consider shape and structure as well. Seen in flight, the Snowy Egret shows much less of a bulging loop in its neck than the Great Egret, and its wings don’t look as long and broad relative to the size of the body.
What’s in a name?
For such a familiar bird, Great Egret has had a surprising number of different names. In North America, just within the last few decades, it has been known officially as American Egret, then Common Egret, and now Great Egret. In Europe, it has been known as Great White Egret or even as Great White Heron, inviting confusion with the Florida/Caribbean bird of the same name.
But is the Great Egret really an egret, or is it a heron? To answer that, we have to know whether those terms actually have different meanings.
The short answer is: They don’t. Let’s look at the graceful, beautiful Snowy Egret for a classic example of egret-ness. It even has that identity baked into its scientific name, since it belongs to the genus Egretta. That genus also includes Little Egret and Reddish Egret. But Egretta also includes Tricolored Heron and Little Blue Heron, which, despite their different last names, are fairly close relatives of Snowy Egret. And then there’s the Cattle Egret, which is also sometimes called Buff-backed Heron, and it’s classified in a different genus by itself.
So, what about Great Egret? It was once classified in the genus Egretta also, and later placed in its own genus, Casmerodius. But based on DNA studies, it’s now placed in Ardea, the genus of large herons, along with the Great Blue Heron.