The Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) is a small, elegant member of the heron family. Like their cousin the Grey Heron, they are often seen either standing motionless, or moving slowly through water and stirring the mud with their feet, until they see a fish. Once they spot their prey, they use their long necks and long legs to dart forward swiftly to catch it.
These birds can be found in wetland areas across Africa, Europe, South Asia and Australasia. They have been classed as Least Concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List, and their population has increased in recent years thanks to protection of their feeding areas and the creation of artificial nesting sites. In the 19th Century they were hunted for the long plumes of feathers that they develop in the breeding season, but they are now a protected species. The oldest Little Egret known to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was 22 years old.
Little Egrets have a pure white plumage, black legs and beak, and yellow feet. Their wingspan is around a metre (36in). Females and males are similar in appearance. Their main diet is small fish, but they will also eat aquatic snails and insects, shrimps and frogs. They may even eat small birds and lizards.
Some members of the species stay close to where they hatched, such as in the UK, while others migrate, eg from Europe to Central Africa. Little Egrets sometimes build their nests (platforms built with sticks) on the ground among reeds, but more usually nest in trees or bushes along with other egrets, herons and even spoonbills. Their gurgling call is a distinctive sound during the breeding season. The female lays up to five eggs. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs and finding food. The eggs hatch after about three weeks, and the chicks have white, fluffy feathers. They are able to leave the nest and walk around at about a month old, and they can fly at about 45 days old. They are fed regurgitated food by their parents until they learn to feed themselves.
In the UK, Little Egrets are most often found on the south coast of England and the south coast of Wales. They are also resident in southern Ireland. In particular, they are a common sight at RSPB Burton Mere in the north west of England, since successful breeding occurred in 2005.
There are 11 other members of the Egretta genus and they are all of a similar shape, with long legs, long necks and sharp beaks. Different species are different in colour, ranging from white to black, and some species have reddish tints to their plumage.
The Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) is found in North, South and Central America. It is classed as Least Concern and its population is increasing. The Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor) (which has grey, white and reddish plumage) is found around Central America - it is classed as Least Concern and its population is stable. Others with stable populations are: the Black Heron (Egretta ardesiaca), which is found around central and southern Africa; the Western Reef-egret, which is found around the coasts of Central Africa and south west Asia; the Pacific Reef-egret (Egretta sacra) and the White-faced Heron (Egretta novaehollandiae), which are found on the Pacific Islands and around the coast of Australia; and the Pied Heron (Egretta picata) of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and north Australia. However, other members of the genus are not so fortunate.
The Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) that is found around Central America, is currently of Least Concern but its population is decreasing. The Chinese Egret (Egretta eulophotes), which is found around the Philippines and the coast of China, and the Slaty Egret (Egretta vinaceigula) of Central Africa are Vulnerable and their populations decreased between 2012 and 2016 when assessments were carried out. The Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) can be found around the coasts of Mexico and Texas, USA. It is classed as Near Threatened and its population is decreasing - in 2020 there were fewer than 10,000 mature birds in the wild.
There are other birds with 'egret' in their names, such as the Great White Egret (Ardea alba) and the Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) but these are not members of the Egretta genus, although they are members of the heron family (Ardeidae) and are similarly long-legged and long-necked birds.