The egress of egrets


The Eastern great egret’s yellow bill changes to black during the breeding season. – Photo by Linda29/Pixabay

THE name egret originates from the Old French Provencal term ‘aigreta’ meaning small aigron or heron. Egrets are indeed members of the heron family. For 36 years, I have watched generations of herons in the deep valley near my house in Somerset, England. For about the first 10 years a heron used to perch in the top branches of a stag oak tree in the middle of a floodplain meadow surveying the nearby river. It carefully preened its plumage and would allow me to get within 10 metres of the tree before it took off in long stately wing beats to land in another tree on the far side of the river.

Today, the ‘x’ generation of that heron family nests on a small islet or ‘ait’ in the middle of the river and as soon as it espies me takes off with its elegant, slow beating wings and lands on the river bank about 200 metres away to eventually wade in the shallows and stab at small fish.

Since my first visit to Kuching, 25 years ago, I have been equally fascinated by the sight of egrets strutting alongside roadside drains and verges feeding on frogs and rubbish cast out of car windows.

Worldwide, there are many species of egret and today I would like to focus specifically on four species to be seen in Malaysia. These are the Great Eastern egret (Ardea alba modesta), the Intermediate egret (Ardea intermedia), the little egret (Egretta garzetta) and the Chinese or Swinhoe’s egret (Egretta eulophotes).

Eastern great egret

This is a large species of heron with totally white plumage. Its distinctive feature is its very long neck, which is one and a half times as long as its body. With a yellow bill which changes to black during the breeding season, it measures between 83cm to 103cm in length and weighs between 0.8kg and 1kg. Breeding in colonies, it raises one brood a year in a nest built as a wide, flat platform of dry branches and twigs in tall trees. It hollows out a shallow bowl in which it lays three or four pale blue eggs.

It feeds by spearing its prey with its sharp pointed bill whilst standing still in shallow water through which it wades. This egret has a varied diet of fish, frogs, small reptiles, rodents, crustaceans, and molluscs.

Intermediate egret

Varying in size from 56cm to 72cm in length and weighing about 400 grams, it has a long wingspan of between 105cm and 110cm. It is distinguishable by its thick, short, yellow bill, all white plumage, and dark legs. Found in shallow coastal waters, lakes, and flooded fields, it feeds essentially on crustaceans, frogs, fish, and insects.

Again, its nest is on a platform made of sticks in which it lays two to three pale green eggs, with both parents taking turns to incubate the eggs which hatch at about 25 days. The fledglings leave the nest after about 40 days. Like the Eastern Great egret, this species is classified as of ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) conservation lists.

Little egret

Originally confined to wetlands in warm temperate and tropical parts of Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia, it has gradually moved northwards to even the UK and Ireland this century and is now beginning to colonise the Caribbean islands. These northern species of little egret tend to migrate southwards to the Mediterranean parts of Europe or across to North Africa during the winter months. It appears that they are adapting well to climate change in their northward expansion. Much is known about these birds in ornithological circles.

With an average length of about 60cm and weighing between 350grams and 550 grams, it has a wingspan of 97cm. Its plumage is white and it sports two long plumes to form a crest on the back of its neck during the breeding season. Its long, slender black bill and black legs, and yellowish feet distinguish it from other egret species. Preferring open locations such as lakes, canals, ditches, and flooded rice fields, it can often be seen pecking at ticks on the backs of cattle.

The latter I’ve seen near Kudat in northern Sabah. This species of bird I’ve also observed in Sarawak and also in the wetlands of the Camargue in Provence France.

Mainly feeding on small fish, they also eat amphibians, small reptiles, birds, crustaceans, insects, molluscs, spiders, and worms whilst standing still to spear their prey or shuffling their feet to disturb small fish.

The little egret sports two long plumes to form a crest on the back of its neck during the breeding season. – Photo by GDW45/Wikimedia Commons

They nest in colonies on a platform of sticks in trees, shrubs, reed beds, or in bamboo groves and their three to five pale blue-green eggs are incubated by both parents before hatching at about 23 days. The chicks fledge some 17 days later. They are again classified, as a species, of ‘Least Concern’.

In an historical context these birds were once common in Britain but became extinct through overhunting for their plumes together with climate change in Medieval times during the Little Ice Age. In the 15th century they featured prominently on banqueting tables. In the late 19th century, they became extinct only to reappear in the very late 20th century and are now breeding at an amazing rate today.

Chinese egret

Also known as Swinhoe’s egret after the man who first identified this species in 1860, this bird resembles the little egret and breeds on islands off the eastern Russia coast, North Korea, and mainland China.

Today, it may be seen as a non-breeding, migratory bird in both Sabah and Sarawak. Globally, the estimated total population is between 2,600 and 3,400 birds and thus it is classified as a ‘Vulnerable Threatened Species’ in the IUCN index.

Averaging 68cm in length, with white plumage, and black legs with yellow feet, in the breeding season it develops an 11cm long crest and a dorsal plume extending beyond its tail. Again, in the breeding season, its bill changes from a darkish peach colour to orange and its legs turn to yellowish green. It was these very plumes, used for the decoration of hats in the 19th century, that led to this bird’s near extinction.

Occupying shallow tidal estuaries, mudflats, and marshlands, it is also occasionally found in rice fields and fish ponds with a diet similar to that of the little egret. South Korean ornithologists have well documented this bird’s migratory patterns and ringed many birds to track their annual movements.

Egrets in folklore

In Christianity they are regarded as a symbol of purity because of their white plumage as well as the beauty of God’s creations. In Celtic beliefs they are associated with femininity and an encounter with an egret is a reminder of stillness and time to reflect.

In Native American cultures an egret is seen as a symbol of peace. The oldest Japanese Buddhist temple in Tokyo performs an annual ‘Dance of the White Egret’, which dates back to the eighth century. The Ancient Greeks even saw egrets as messengers of the goddesses of love and wisdom – Aphrodite and Athena respectively. Long may these magnificent birds continue to enthral us without losing more feathers.