Nature Notes: Great egrets then and now

Published 6:17 pm Tuesday, August 1, 2023

By Sydney Weisinger


Have you ever seen a tall snowy-white bird on the water in summer and wondered what it was? Those are great egrets and they are in the heron family. While most people use the terms “heron” and “egret” loosely, most egrets are white. This sleek white bird can reach heights of over three feet tall, with a long yellow beak and black stilt-like legs. During mating season, the patch on their face turns a lime green and their back feathers grow into an elegant plume.  Although the fanciful feathers of this bird do a great job attracting a mate, it has a long, more complex history that extends out of the realm of birds. 

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In the late 1800s it became fashionable to wear plumes from wild birds in ladies’ hats. The birds most affected by this hunting were egrets, ostriches, birds of paradise, pheasants, peacocks, and quails. They were often shot in the spring when their feathers were the most colorful for mating season.  In turn, this decreased the number of nesting birds, which drastically decreased the population in a short period of time. In the end almost five million birds were killed for their plumes and feathers. 

Concerned citizens started speaking out against the hunting of these birds en masse. In fact, the outrage about the slaughter of millions of birds just for the sake of fashion is what first sparked the establishment of the Audubon Society in 1896. With the help of the newly formed Audubon Society and President Theodore Roosevelt, Pelican Island was established as the first national wildlife sanctuary to protect egrets and other birds from plume hunters. Other popular plume hunting areas followed suit and started to protect popular nesting grounds for these birds. Slowly the population began to increase as more awareness was spread about these birds and the devastating effects of plume hunting. As a result of the success of the National Audubon Society’s first campaign, the great egret became their symbol which remains today. 

In present times, the range of the great egret continues to expand. Here in southern Minnesota, we can see a dozen or more egrets standing together on the edge of lakes, marshes, and swamps during August and early September in line with their fall migration. Collectively, great egrets have been moving further north in Minnesota since the 1930s. They became regular migrants and summer residents in southern Minnesota in the 1950s. The farthest north nests of great egrets have been found is in Marshall County in 1980. Since we are coming to the end of summer, great egrets will start migrating south towards the southern states in the U.S., Mexico, and Central America.  

Even though back in the 19th century the great egret was almost hunted to extinction, there is an estimated one to two million of these birds out in the wild today. They are classified with a least concern conservation status and are considered as an excellent example of a successful conservation campaign. If you miss them in the fall migration, they will be back around mid-April. Be on the lookout for three foot wide platform nests that are 20-40 feet off the ground near a water source. We have some great habitat in town along the Cedar River that is perfect for herons and egrets alike, so keep your eyes peeled along the edge of the water or way up in the riverside trees for this fun birding find! 

Free activities at 

the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center

 Today: Volunteer Outdoor Work Day, 3:30-5 p.m. 

Thursday: Senior Special: Will Bjorndal, 10-11 a.m.; Family Program: Will Bjorndal, 1-2 p.m.; Nature Play, 1-4 p.m. 

Saturday: Outdoor Concert: Will Bjorndal, 6-7 p.m.

Aug. 9-11: Fair Booth in Conservation Building, 4:30-7:30 p.m. 

Aug. 12: Statewide Star Party – Interpretive Center, 7-9 p.m.;  Sola Fide Observatory Viewing, 9-10:30 p.m.   

Aug. 17: Family Program: Monarchs, 1-2 p.m.;  Nature Play, 1-4 p.m.

Aug. 24: Senior Special: Wood Turtle Research, 10-11 a.m. 

Aug. 26: Sola Fide Observatory Viewing, 9-11 p.m.

*Interpretive Center is Closed Sundays through August – Trails remain open.