Commonly seen near the shores of North America, the snowy egret, Egretta thula,
is a wading bird (heron
) of family Ardeidae.
Appropriately for their name, snowy egrets are entirely white on their bodies, making them easy to spot in the shallow water and lush, green areas they frequent. With long legs and neck, the birds grow to an adult height of 50 to 70 centimeters or so, and a wingspan
of 100 centimeters. Legs and bill
are black, and the egret's feet are a very conspicuous yellow
. Clearly, this isn't an animal that evolved in an environment where stealth
was a necessity.
The snowy egret's range covers most of the United States and southern Canada, as well as Central America and parts of South America. Though they tend to stay in coastal areas, some egrets do venture far inland, particularly in the summer. They feed by wading in marshes, ponds, and similar environments, plucking small fish, amphibians, crustaceans, insects, or anything else they can find out of the water. Sensitive to cold, their winter range extends southward from South Carolina.
Throughout most of the year, they're just ordinary-looking white birds, with males and females practically indistinguishable. When the egrets' breeding season rolls around, though, they grow long plumes known as aigrettes from their heads. This is good news for a snowy egret looking for a mate, but bad news for that egret when breeding season happens to coincide with hunting season.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, snowy egret plumes were tres chic among much bigger organisms looking for mates: upper-class ladies. Immensely popular as hat decorations, the plumes were in such great demand among the fashionable that more than a million egrets were shot. The species very nearly went extinct. There are more snowy egrets around today, fortunately, thanks to legal protection for the birds.
Snowy egrets breed annually in large colonies, the females laying three to five green-blue eggs in platform-like nests crudely built of twigs, and incubating them for three to four weeks. The offspring are able to leave home after a few weeks. As snowy egret eggs and nests closely resemble those of reptiles, they're believed to be one of the less evolved species of bird.