Snowy Egret (Egretta thula): Barry Kent Mackay

The Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) is a small (about 370 grams, or 13 oz), South American heron whose range extends as far north as parts of the central contiguous U.S., north along the east coast of New England with the odd one being seen as far north as southern Canada. While it is now a common species at one time the Snowy Egret was at risk of extirpation throughout much of its range as the birds were killed in large numbers for their nuptial plumes, known as “aigrettes”, of their lower back and neck.  Those long, filmy feathers were in great demand as fashionable adornments to ladies’ hats in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fortunately, legal protection was implemented in time to prevent the loss of the species from much of its range.  The near loss of these beautiful birds illustrates the fact that, with a very few exceptions, when a wild species of animal or plant or parts of it has significant market value, greed, in the absence of well enforced protective regulations, will drive it to endangerment or extinction.

While birds in the temperate parts of their range are migratory, the species is found year-round throughout most of its range in southern North America, the West Indies, and most of South America, especially in coastal regions.  I have often enjoyed seeing them delicately stepping on the floating tops of great kelp beds off the northern California coast, looking for crabs and other small, aquatic fauna.  They can be found in fresh, brackish and saltwater environments and may hunt on land for smaller prey species. 

While they may nest alone, usually they nest in colonies, sometimes very large assemblies consisting of thousands of birds, and they often nest in association with other colonially nesting species such as other herons and egrets, ibises, spoonbills, pelicans and cormorants. They have elaborate courtship displays that can include fanning out their remarkably filamentous plumes and even will indulge in tumbling aerial displays and vocalizations.  The female is the primary nest builder assisted by the male bringing her materials.  From one to six eggs are laid, with incubation lasting approximately three weeks, the chicks staying in the nest for 24 to 30 days. 

I find it fascinating that fossils of Snowy Egrets from the western hemisphere date back to the late Pleistocene, before which their ancestors presumably reached the Americas, diverging from an ancestral species in common with a few very similar Eurasian species, including the widely distributed Little Egret (E. garzetta) that also has yellow feet but not as yellow, and long aigrettes, but not quite as showy. The Snowy Egret has shown up in both Europe and Africa, including the Azores, and the Little Egret has not only reached the Americas in current times, but apparently established itself in the Barbados beginning in 1994, forming a nucleus from which it is spreading elsewhere through the West Indies an onto the continent, while in Europe it is spreading northward. I think we sometimes forget how fluid populations of such mobile wildlife as many birds can be, if left alone, and how numbers can greatly rebound if properly protected.  We see only a “snapshot” of distribution and evolution in these species. Herons generally experience widespread dispersal after nesting, and some species, such as the (Western) Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) undergo significant range change, in the case of the Cattle Egret, experiencing literally global expansion within recent memory, all well documented and recorded.

The painting is 18 by 33 inches, in oils on compressed hardboard and is approximately life-size.

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

Studio: (905) 472 9731

31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

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