Egrets: big white birds and little white lies

Egrets take my breath away. They’re shockingly elegant birds: tall, white, graceful, exotic. And best of all for bird photographers like us, they can be relatively approachable.

They’re herons, really. There’s no meaningful difference between egrets and herons; biologically they’re all one gang of birds. Except that when we talk about egrets, we’re generally talking about a group that are white with beautiful breeding plumes. (Mind you there are egrets that aren’t white, and herons that are white… c’est compliqué, as they say.)

closeup of a cattle egret
So very white.

Like other herons, they tend to hang out at the edges of lakes, ponds, and other wetlands. Generally they are the picture of piscivorous poise as they wait, motionless, for a fish or other aquatic critter to stop by for dinner. Some of the egrets, though, seem to have less patience than their heron cousins, chasing fish in the most ungainly way. I try not to judge.

little egret hunting
Little egret, Sri Lanka

Egrets: worldly birds

We see them in our travels; they’re not a regular feature of our bird scape here on the Pacific coast of Canada. The photos you see here are from our past travels to Mexico, the Caribbean, India, and Sri Lanka— warm, luxuriant locales with bird diversity that we only dream of here.

They range from the very tall great egret to the wee cattle egret, who is the long-distance wanderer of them all. Cattle egrets, once confined to a relatively small part of the Old World have, for reasons unknown, slowly spread around the world—perhaps to take advantage of agriculture. They hang out in fields.

cattle egret on a goat's back
Marjory didn’t get the memo about being a cattle egret.

Hunting egrets to death

The name egret comes from the French aigrette, which refers to both the bird and the name of any ornate plume that might adorn a peacock, heron, ostrich, egret… or Victorian fancy lady. Egret plumes are fabulous. They’re long and fine and graceful and, like a peacock’s tail feather, weave and bob and shimmy with any movement.

snowy egret
Snowy egret. Those plumes, eh?

When egret plumes were in fashion around the turn of the 20th century, plume hunters devastated breeding populations of these beautiful birds and other herons. Breeding birds sitting in a colony were easy prey for the hunters, who could make a fortune in a season (the birds generally only sport the plumes at breeding time.) At the height of the demand, egret plumes were worth more than twice their weight in gold. As both males and females have the plumes, the hunters wiped out entire breeding colonies. The birds were in bad shape.

snowy egret
Snowy egret. Such a magnificent bird.

The millinery trade was careful to assure the public that the plumes were hunted responsibly; they were gathered off the ground, they said, from birds who had naturally shed them. (And some of them were—but shed plumes didn’t bring the price of live-harvested ones). Other customers were reassured by the claim that the plumes were artificial, not from real birds. “Fun plumes”, I’m sure they’d call them today.

And of course, people wanted to believe them.

“Here are some official figures of the trade from one source alone, of auctions at the London Commercial Sales Rooms during 1902. There were sold 1,608 packages of… herons’ plumes. A package is said to average in weight 30 ounces. This makes a total of 48,240 ounces. As it requires about four birds to make an ounce of plumes, these sales meant 192,960 herons killed at their nests, and from two to three times that number of young or eggs destroyed.”

great egret against blue sky
Great egret, Los Cabos, Mexico

Environmental crises have long been met with a kind of collective denial: Passenger pigeons weren’t extinct; the great flocks had just moved west. Bison weren’t gone; they all just went south for a while.

Today we’re savvy and well-informed; we have access to information that the Victorians could only dream of. Except… we, like they, are able to pick and choose the information we want to hear.

great egret
Great egret, Sri Lanka

Selective thinking is how we cope with a problem called cognitive dissonance. We really want to wear plumes, use plastic, burn gas, have a carefree social life, and at the same time we really want to think of ourselves as ethical, responsible people—and those two things sometimes produce unpleasant conflict in our minds. So we resolve it not by changing behaviour but by investing in an alternate, comforting reality. Plumes are from a sustainable source! All that plastic gets recycled! Covid is magically over! There’s no climate warming—why, it snowed around here just yesterday! And on it goes. We construct our world around us to help us get through our days—and the people who benefit financially from our self-deception are only too happy to reinforce it with dishonest messages.

cattle egret
Cattle egret, Goa, India

I realize that was probably a bit more philosophical musing than you were expecting in a bird blog today. Let us dwell, then, on the positive. Egrets are abundant again; the egret plume crisis was resolved. In fact it became the genesis of the entire modern conservation movement. Then-president Theodore Roosevelt was moved by the plume crisis to protect federal land as bird habitat for the first time. (Canada has a long history of bird conservation too, perhaps pre-dating the USA’s, though ours was focussed on game bird conservation at the time.)

May you enjoy the magnificent white plumage of egrets for years to come.


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3 thoughts on “Egrets: big white birds and little white lies”

  1. I have watched with fascination how egrets in Malaysian Borneo often ride on the backs of water buffalo while they graze in the rice paddies. They are a spectacle when they take flight, grazing the sky with such grace. I knew about the Victorian rage for their feathers from Uni days when we studied the history of dress/costumes. Thankfully they survived as a species. We may not be so lucky and we don’t even sport desirable plumage.

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  2. I live in Clearwater & I’m a traveling in home sales from Venice to Crystal River over to Kissimmee & Seffner so I get to see many of our beautiful sanctuary & parks. In the last 3 years too much building… i hardly see any egrets anymore. I used to see them all the time.

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