When someone brings up the topic “Great White,” we automatically go there, especially during this beach going season where some aggressive Great Whites have presented themselves in displays of ostentatious and hazardous behaviors! However, there is another Great White that is more pervasive in our coastal area and far less likely to cause any peril or harm. The elegant Great White Egret is an impressive and gorgeous sight to see along our Eastern North Carolina Coast. There are smaller white egrets, such as the Common Egret, but this one is the “greatest” because it is the largest. The Great White Egret is a tall (3.5 feet), brilliantly white, long-legged wading bird with a lengthy, slim neck, an extensive, dagger-like bill and a wingspan of 52 to 67 inches. They fly slowly but powerfully, with only two wing beats per second and can cruise around 25 miles an hour. Gangly and awkward to maneuver, they are definitely a handful to examine at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. We recently received a call on a Great White who could not fly and was unable to jump a fence when approached by humans. The caller, with the help of her friend, managed to contain the wader in a sheet thrown over him to allow for safe transport. During examination at the shelter, no injury or disease was found. Our theory is while hunting for food, he must have ingested chemicals or other toxins in recent run-off caused by massive rains and became ill and too weak to fly. We are treating him for possible poisoning and with his abundant finger-mullet feedings, as well as large silver sides, he is getting stronger every day. Great White Egrets stand erect and motionless for long periods of time searching or waiting for prey to approach during the hunt in marshes, ponds and tidal flats. They capture your attention like dazzling statues in the distance with their beautiful white plumage that drapes over their back and rump during breeding season. Also during breeding season, a patch of skin on its face turns a brilliant green. They have skinny black legs with very long toes and a thick yellow-orange bill used to capture fish with one quick and deadly jab. In addition to fish, they eat frogs, reptiles, insects such as dragonflies and grasshoppers and small aquatic animals. When they fly, their slim neck is tucked into a tight S-curve, which is quite different from other marsh birds such as storks, cranes, ibises and spoonbills that extend their necks in flight. Males and females are identical in appearance, although the male is a little larger. They are not normally vocal birds, but when disturbed they will present a low, hoarse croaking sound. They become more vocal during breeding season with higher-pitched croaking and occasional squawks. Great Egrets are found in freshwater and saltwater habitats and can be solitary or colonial. They often roost with other wading birds such as herons and ibises and nest in colonies, usually on islands that are isolated from predators, especially raccoons. Great Whites breed at 2 to 3 years of age, and displays of courtship by males include calling, circular display flights and stretching their neck up with their long, scissor bill pointed skyward. Great White Egrets are monogamous and both parents incubate their pale green-blue, three to four eggs for 23-27 days while sheltered in a platform nest 3 feet wide and 1 foot deep made of sticks and twigs found high in trees along the water, which is a location the male has selected. The eggs will be staggered hatches, meaning all the chicks are at different stages of development during rearing. Both parents feed the young, also white at birth, by regurgitation and youngsters may stumble out of the nest at 3 weeks and be ready to fly at 6-7 weeks. The Great White Egret adapts well to human habitation and is frequently seen near wetlands in urban and suburban areas along the coast. Unfortunately, Great White Egrets became nearly extinct by 95% in the nineteenth century due to fashion-plume hunters, but the Great Egret is now protected and has bounced back as a conservation success story. As a matter of fact, the plight of the GW Egret sparked restoration conversation many years ago which resulted in the first laws enacted to protect birds. In 1953, the Great White Egret was chosen as the symbol of the National Audubon Society, which was formed partly to prevent the killing of birds, such as the Great Egret, for their feathers. It’s so much more enjoyable and humane to see these snowy white shorebirds adorned with their magnificent plumage than to see those grand and glorious feathers attached to a lady’s hat! Of course, most people won’t see Great White Egrets in their backyard, but to ensure their survivability we can encourage the preservation of suitable wetlands, monitor pollution and pesticide levels, as well as, limit the spread of invasive aquatic plants. Wildlife rehabilitators and conservationists are happy to say the Great White Egret’s outlook is much brighter, and their numbers have increased substantially over the last few decades. They still have to dodge and outwit predators such as raccoons, which we already gave the mean face to earlier in this article but there are also crows and vultures to watch out for and humans who destroy habitat also pose a huge threat to their livelihood. The oldest Great Egret is known to have reached 22 years and 10 months and was banded in Ohio. Our Great White, at the shelter, is cooperating by remaining calm and tolerant and by maintaining a good appetite during his rehabilitation. He should be returning to the wetlands soon, and we’re sure he’ll have quite the story to tell when he meets up again with family and friends!
author of “Save Them All“