Monday, March 14, 2011

Among Egrets and Alligators

Bird life along the coast outside my windows is naturally plentiful. A part of any walk on the beach is bound to be through flocks of gulls, skittering ruddy turnstones and under the elegant wingspan of soaring pelicans. Season and weather conditions influence both the number and type of birds encountered, and while there is some constancy, one of the examples not seen along the east coast of central Florida during winter and early spring is the egret. Probable that many of them move farther south to warmer coastal waters, but many of them are satisfied to move inland to lakes and waterways less troubled by cold wind. I was surprised to see last month two egrets calmly foraging in the grass verge of a freeway exit ramp in downtown Orlando, unmoved by the approach of cars up the ramp or the high speed swoosh of cars on the freeway side. The absence of any water seemed unimportant against the presence of grasshoppers in the six inch grass.

Though most of my life is identified with large cities, and while certainly not any kind of biologist, growing up in Louisiana left me with at least a kinship with bayous and swamp and the life that thrives in those ecosystems. Most days of my youth were spent riding a bicycle on paved streets that marked the habitat of more cats and dogs than anything else, but weekends and holidays spent at bayou camps fishing and hunting were many and from those weekends I developed an abiding appreciation of the wet green and cypress knee beauty of South Louisiana bayous.

The southern fringes of Louisiana’s extensive marshland are home to the largest species of egrets native to America. Unlike the smaller egrets that populate the summer coast of Florida, Louisiana egrets stand three feet tall, with a wingspan of five feet. By mid-April these giant egrets have mated and built nests in bushes or on tree branches, laid and hatched their eggs. Egret pairs usually produce four chicks which require six weeks of near constant feeding, but by the end of May the chicks will begin to fend for themselves.

The weeks from birth to self-sufficiency are like that of almost all creatures in nature, fraught with a host of dangers from spring storms and floods and from natural enemies like hawks, raccoons, alligators and snapping turtles. Not unheard of for alligators to batter bushes and tree trunks with their tail to shake the young down from the nest. A nasty thought, but tame compared to the bird’s onetime worst enemy, man. Now the birds are protected, but in earlier times plume hunters almost wiped out the egrets in southern Louisiana, providing decoration for women’s hats in the form of a luxuriant plume called aigrettes which the egrets exhibit only during courtship and later lose. But that is the past, and if we are able to avoid tragedies like last year’s BHP oil spill which has destroyed hundreds of square miles of Louisiana wetland, perhaps these beautiful birds will continue to flourish.

The two black and white photos of Louisiana egrets come from a 1973 Time-Life book, The Bayous.

In the top photograph an egret stands poised on a dead cypress tree. It is a carefully balanced stance from which the bird can launch instantly into flight.

The second photograph shows an adult egret repairing the platform of twigs that serve as a nest. The male procures the materials and the female does the building.


  1. Interesting post. Yes, growing up in Louisiana does have its benefits--especially when it comes to the outdoors: some cold days but not much winter to speak of; plenty of outdoor activities; and wildlife all around--even among the backyards of the houses in towns. And always the talk of saving the eroding wetlands but never much action. Even discounting Louisiana supplying something like 46% of the nation's seafood, the entire country will be poorer for the lost of its beauty and natural wonder. The wetlands can be as awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon.

  2. Living so many years in Louisiana, I don't remember as many egrets as I have here in Florida. Many times I'll walk out of my front door and an egret will be gracefully walking across the lawn and is not in the least bothered by my presence. I have tried getting close to one and she may walk slightly faster, but isn't really afraid of me. The ones here in central Florida are small, graceful and most of the time alone. Really interesting article as I did not know that the male procures the material and the female builds the nest....a woman's work is never done.


About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America