Dancers on the Marshes

Snowy Egrets

by: Virginia Andrews

Snowy Egrets. Delicate, small white herons, they appear and disappear in our salt marshes.

What could speak more eloquently of summer’s arrival?

Sometimes, just a head pokes up in the grasses. Sometimes a small flock works over a sandbar at The Creeks. Sometimes a solitary bird stalks a ditch next to the Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum, or pops up as a surprise at a hidden pond.

They can be recognized by their small stature, pointed black bills and bright yellow feet. Variously described as wearing yellow sneakers or golden slippers, the description perhaps depends largely on the footwear preferences of the human observer. They have a shaggy crest on the nape of the neck in all seasons, and pure white plumage. To see one is to be gifted with beauty.

They are worth a longer look, because their courtship and foraging strategies are unique.

They have special feathers in the breeding season that they can raise up. Lacy spines, branching like soft twigs or living mists, their display is equaled by their animation. The male defends a nest site. His raised plumes are a statement of territorial ownership or a greeting to potential mates. He flies in a circle around his homestead, or stands, calling, pumping his body up and down while holding his bill pointing skyward.

Sometimes he stretches and pumps his body while flying. When courtship progresses, he and his mate may fly high and then tumble over and over, as if falling toward the ground, stopping to land normally just in time. Sometimes the pair plays a game of leapfrog.

The nest is often in a rookery with other herons, and may be built in – or on – various trees or shrubs such as red cedar, tupelo, bayberry or groundsel. They tend to favor offshore islands as a relief from some mainland predators.

They build a stick nest, with the female doing the construction while the male supplies the building material. Loose sticks and twigs are woven together and lined with grass, rushes or moss, depending on the locale.

The female lays anywhere from two to six eggs, and both parents share in the incubation. This takes about three weeks, give or take a few days. When the young hatch, they are, even by heron standards, gangly, awkward creatures. Although covered with soft down, they belong in the “so ugly they’re cute” category. Both parents feed their offspring, in typical heron fashion. Let’s just say their style is different from mammals, and let it go at that.

Depending on weather conditions, the young require constant brooding to protect them. This can take anywhere from 10 days to two weeks. When the young begin to be active, they start by hauling themselves out of the nest, using not only their feet, but their developing wings, or even grabbing with their bills. By this time a heron colony is quite an olfactory experience. The young tend to remain close to the colony for some weeks.

Thanks to their keen eyesight, Snowy Egrets have an unusually large repertoire of foraging methods compared to other waders. Where the much larger and longer-necked Great Egret has a stately, patient approach to food collection, usually waiting for a morsel to swim by, Snowies employ a much more active range of styles. They use more than one strategy. And this is where their feet come in, literally.

Those golden slippers can be used in multiple ways. Although Snowy Egrets will stand and wait, they also run and stir. They chase, they splash, they probe. They drag the mud to attract small fish such as sheepshead minnows, mummichogs or silversides. Snowies may use their wings as shades or scoops. They can vibrate their bills and tongues. They race back and forth, changing direction on a dime. They practically dance at times.

In addition to fish, they eat marine worms such as polychaetes, as well as small shrimp or crabs. To the great gratitude of anyone caught on the wrong side of a dune on a hot summer day, they also eat green-headed flies, which always do their level best to eat us beach-goers. To watch them in action is to see environmental adaptation at work.

This is a sight we can enjoy frequently today. But the Snowy Egret was once so rare that mere sightings were assumed to be misidentified immature Little Blue Herons. As “accidental vagrants,” a specimen in the hand was required for documentation. One was shot in Boston in 1862. Another was collected at Hummock Pond on Nantucket in 1882 by a member of the crew of the lifesaving station. Between 1926 and 1947 there were only six Massachusetts records. But in 1948 they, along with a couple of other species of herons, made a major incursion north. By 1955 they were nesting in Massachusetts. They now breed as far north as southern Nova Scotia.

This was an amazing comeback, as of all the herons massacred for the plume trade in the 19th century, they suffered the most. Starting in the 1870s their showy feathers adorned not only women’s hats but British Army uniforms, where they were mis-labeled “Osprey” plumes. Although military use was discontinued in 1889, millinery fashions only burgeoned.

The birds were shot on their nests, to get the full breeding plumage, leaving eggs to rot or young to starve. Their plumes became so valuable that an ounce of feathers was worth $32, which was then double the value of an ounce of gold. To put this in perspective, a day laborer’s wage at the time was about $1.32.

With the lure of a year’s income to be gained in perhaps a week, Snowy Egrets as well as other herons were nearly extirpated from North America. Efforts at protection began around 1900, and were not without bloodshed.

A former school official named Guy Bradley had guided plume hunters himself as a teenager. But he, like a few other former guides, became disgusted at the sheer waste and cruelty of the industry. He was hired by the American Ornithologist’s Union at the request of the Florida Audubon Society to protect rookeries up and down the state’s west coast. One of the first game wardens, he was shot and killed by poachers, at age 35. He was not the last of conservation’s martyrs.

But tastes finally changed. With the exposure of the reality underlying the industry, dead birds just stopped being sexy. Thanks to a few places such as the sanctuary maintained by the McIlhenny family in Louisiana, Snowy Egrets were able to not only recover but expand up the coasts and rivers of North America. That they became common is one of life’s miracles. It points to the positive power of beauty to pierce the human heart.

But despite the gains over the 20th century, Snowy Egrets are declining again. The culprits are not as easy to track this time: pesticides, plastic, pollution, development, climate change. Such widespread problems are even more difficult to control. But in the name of beauty, we have to hope we can find a way to keep them, still dancing, through cleaner water. ///

Virginia “Ginger” Andrews has had a lifelong exposure to the world of birding, through her mother, the late Edith Andrews, a noted ornithologist. Ginger leads bird walks for the Maria Mitchell Association and writes “Island Bird Sightings,” the weekly birding column, for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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