Really Great Egrets -July 2018

by: Virginia Andrews

Stately waders, those Great Egrets. With brilliant white plumage they stalk though our marshes, walk the edges of island ponds and sometimes gather on sandy flats along the harbor. Their long, long, long necks extended, they look as if they are peering over an invisible fence into neighboring shallows.

In birding lingo, “Great” or “Greater” in a name is about size. It’s not a value judgment. The Great Egret is a big bird compared to most other herons.
They are a global species, with representatives on every continent but Antarctica. Called by different names in Europe and divided into four subspecies, they live in tropical zones worldwide. In many temperate zones they are seasonal migrants. They come north to breed, nesting in large colonies, often mixing with other herons. There is even a rookery on Nantucket.

But what’s so great about them? In birding lingo, “Great” or “Greater” in a name is about size. It’s not a value judgment. The Great Egret is a big bird compared to most other herons. But they are also graceful, undeniably beautiful and the subject of many a photo and painting. But beauty can be a problem as much as an advantage. For Great Egrets it was nearly their undoing, yet also proved to be their salvation.

In the breeding season Great Egrets are at their showiest, with bright, lime-green lores extending from the eye to the base of the bill. Even more spectacular, they grow extra-long, nodding white plumes. These “aigrettes,” composed of 35 strands of slim feathers, grow from the scapular area of the birds’ back. In courtship the male dances, throws his head back, and raises these plumes up in the air, fanning them out like a peacock. Even after the eggs are being incubated, the raised feathers are displayed as a greeting when the birds change places on the nest.

In many birds, elaborate feather displays are a sign of health and fitness. In fact, there are theories now that feathers may have evolved for display first in dinosaurs and only later became useful in making flight possible. These ideas are not yet proven but are an intriguing explanation of the many forms of otherwise seemingly unnecessarily gaudy plumage. For Great Egrets, this is where the trouble started.

Feathers have universal appeal to humans, and probably always have. As trophies or symbols, they have been used in ceremony or worn in some form in many cultures from time immemorial. Ancient Chinese studied Egrets. With almost the same appeal as Cranes, they came to represent moral worth and purity, just as Cranes did longevity.

Artists painted them, and poets compared them to pear blossoms or snow. Their feathers were used for making fans for the most respected of men. In Europe, hunters would put a feather literally in their caps to show their success. In the 1870s hats were an indispensable part of women’s fashion. Dresses had expanded in size and hats had to catch up, getting ever larger and more heavily ornamented. As hat brims extended, feathers proved irresistible. If one feather was good, surely more were better.

Soon even whole stuffed birds began to decorate the fashionable ladies of London and New York. Strolling along Fifth Avenue, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History once counted 40 species of birds on a two-hour walk. So, for Victorian ladies on both sides of the Atlantic, the Egret’s aigrettes became a most desirable fashion accessory.

With a large upwardly-mobile middle class fueling the demand, plume-hunting became a profitable business. Hunters ransacked the heron colonies close to home, and then expanded their efforts west and south to Florida, braving the snakes and alligators of the Everglades to collect their booty. It was a time of wholesale shooting of everything from the buffalo to the Passenger Pigeon. With manifest destiny and God-given authority the ideas of the day, no one could believe that such abundant populations could ever be reduced by mere human activity, at least no one who benefited from it. But the slaughter belied that delusion.

By killing the adults in the midst of the breeding season, hunters could wipe out entire generations at once. Eggs were left for the crows and nestlings starved, their rotting corpses dangling over the edges of the nests.

The birds became harder to find, and prices rose accordingly. The demand became so intense that an ounce of feathers was worth as much as an ounce of gold, fixed at $32 at the time. States began to set aside some preserves in hopes of protecting the supply, but they were poorly protected and had little effect. In fact, the birds were nearly extirpated from North America, and the purveyors hid the cruelty of the harvest with false assurances.

The truth came out, however, and two Boston women, Harriet Hemenway and her cousin Minna Hall, decided to do something about it. They refused to wear feathers themselves and led the fashion of the day away from their use. Ostrich plumes, which could be harvested without killing the source, were substituted. Their actions started the first Audubon Society, and sparked an entire movement of protection for our native birds.

Conservation laws were passed, and the migratory bird treaties. At first these were also loosely enforced. But when Guy Brady, a warden who had been a former plume-hunter himself, was shot to death in a confrontation, aigrettes became even less fashionable. The Great Egret is now the symbol of the National Audubon Society. Without this ongoing protection we would not enjoy the sights we have become accustomed to over the last hundred years.

It took quite a while before Egrets returned to Massachusetts. With young or unmated birds dispersing widely, a few scattered sightings were reported in the 1920s. Two were notable on Tuckernuck in 1925. One was seen on Nantucket in 1946. Not until the 1970s were they re-established as a breeding species. Now we are lucky to have a colony of our own on Nantucket, well-protected not only by human rangers, but by some extremely aggressive mosquitos.

All summer long they spread out over Nantucket’s wetlands. They can stand motionless for long moments or pick their way slowly along, watching, always watching. But let an unwary minnow come into range and Bam! It is as if white lightning struck the water, and that long, sharp yellow bill lifts up with a flash of wriggling silver. Breakfast! Or lunch, dinner or tea. With such a long, slender neck, the bulge in the Egret’s crop gives away the secret: a meal has been had.

Although fish are a mainstay, the Egret’s diet also includes frogs, small crustaceans, grasshoppers and other insects and larvae, and small mammals like mice and voles. The island bird club once watched an exceptionally ambitious – or unusually hungry – Great Egret kill and eat a large rat.

To listen to a flock of Great Egrets conversing among themselves is like hearing a couple of geese attempting to sing through their noses. Somewhere between a honk and a cackle, it

nonetheless makes a comforting, homelike murmur when coming from an active colony or roost.

As they stalk the marshes, carefully lifting and planting their black feet, or extending their wings in a blinding-white five-foot span, they have become one of the most pleasing sights of summer birding. ///

Virginia Andrews writes the weekly “Island Bird Sightings” column for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821, and is a regular writer for Nantucket Today.

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