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New Jersey Endangered and Threatened Species Field Guide
Species Group: Bird
State: Special Concern (Breeding)
The snowy egret is a white wading bird with a slender build, long neck, long black legs with yellow feet, and a long thin black bill. Males and females look similar. They grow to a length of 24 inches with a wingspan of 41 inches.
During the non-breeding season, this egret’s lores are yellow. In the breeding season, the lores become red. Their feet may also flush orange or reddish during the breeding season and elegant white plumes may develop on their crown, foreneck, and back.
The great egret (Ardea alba) is sometimes confused with the snowy egret since they are both white wading birds. The great egret, however, has black legs and feet and a yellow beak, whereas the snowy egret’s legs and beak are black and their feet are yellow. The great egret is also larger at 39 inches in length.
DISTRIBUTION AND HABITAT
The snowy egret has a fairly wide range. They breed as far north as southern Canada and are a year-round resident in the West Indies, Central and South America, southern California, and the southeastern US.
The snowy egret primarily occurs within New Jersey only during the breeding season and along the coast. They may occasionally be observed in winter as well. They may also be observed inland but they appear in their greatest numbers along the coast which is where the vase majority of New Jersey’s egrets nest.
Their preferred habitat is wetland and forest bordering water bodies. They nest in trees by fresh or salt water and forage in and alongside water bodies. Nests are usually 5-10 feet above the ground but sometimes as high as 30 feet.
Snowy egrets feed on fish, aquatic invertebrates and even small snakes and lizards. They feed by wading into or alongside water and spearing their prey with their long beak.
The snowy egret’s breeding season begins in April or May and ends by late August. They nest in colonies which are often quite large and may be occupied by other heron and egret species as well.
Both the male and female build the nest. Three or four greenish-blue eggs are laid and then incubated by both adults for 20-24 days. The nestlings are semialtrical and are cared for by both parents. The young will leave the nest for nearby branches at about 3-4 weeks of age.
CURRENT STATUS, THREATS, AND CONSERVATION
The snowy egret’s breeding feathers made it among the most hunted species during the 1800s and early 1900s for the millinery trade. Because they nest in colonies, they were an easy target for hunters. Although hunting did result in a sever decline in the species’ population, it has largely recovered from that threat.
Currently, the greatest threat to the snowy egret is habitat loss and degradation together with disturbance of nesting colonies. Wetland destruction has caused a decrease in egret populations from their historic numbers. Since the 1950s, habitat loss has occurred at an alarming rate in New Jersey, destroying wetlands critical to breeding egrets. This species is listed as Special Concern during the breeding season.
Like many species in New Jersey, protecting snowy egrets is closely tied with protecting their wetland habitats. Strong environmental laws to protect wetlands from disturbance and development help to protect wetlands and the egret.
We still have much to learn about the biology and population status of snowy egrets in New Jersey. Research needs to be completed to find additional breeding sites, check existing nesting areas, and determine whether the population might be decreasing or increasing.
Text written by Michael J. Davenport in 2011.
Species: E. thula
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