The Snowy Egret (Egrtt athula) is one of those beautiful white herons you see in tidal marshes in Connecticut. It is the smaller of the two pure white egrets you are likely to notice along our coastline, the larger species being the great egret, which is almost the size of a great blue heron. Size certainly helps in identifying one white species from another, but there are other characteristics that can help you make a positive i.d.
Bill and leg colors are telling clues. The Snowy Egret’s bill is black with yellow at the base; the bill of the Great Egret is yellow. Both have black legs as adults, but the Snowy Egret will surprise you as it lifts its legs to walk through the marsh or to take flight. Its feet are bright yellow, a comical touch to an otherwise elegant bird.
Feeding habits differ between the two species as well. While the great egret will walk slowly and purposefully through shallow water as it forages for small fish, reptiles, amphibians and aquatic invertebrates, the Snowy Egret can become quite animated in its search for food. It will scrape one foot through the muck and vegetation below the water’s surface to scare up prey, such as small fish. Or it will sometimes flap its wings as it runs through the shallows chasing schools of fish.
As pictured here, the Snowy Egret sports long, showy plumes during the breeding season. In the 1800s, the demand for flamboyant women’s hats almost doomed the snowy egret and many other bird species to extinction as they were hunted and killed at their nests for their breeding feathers. Thankfully, a grassroots effort to save the birds led to the passage of bird protection laws in the early 1900s, as well as to the inception of our National Wildlife Refuge system. Locally decimated populations were able to rebound and after an absence of over 100 years, breeding Snowy Egrets were documented in Connecticut in 1961 on the Norwalk Islands.
Snowy Egrets, like other egret species, breed in colonies. They tend to build their nests in lower shrubby vegetation, while great egrets will nest higher in trees. Those breeding in Connecticut prefer nesting on islands off the coast where they are safer from predators and human disturbance. Please obey posted signs when visiting shoreline islands and pack out all your trash so as not to attract raccoons and other predators. These birds are listed as a threatened species in Connecticut.
By autumn the breeding season is over and small flocks of Snowy Egrets can be seen in our coastal marshes as they busily feed before migrating south. Coastal areas along the southern United States, as well as the West Indies, Central and South America host Snowy Egrets for the winter.