The Great White Egret (Ardea alba) is a large, elegant member of the heron family. Like their cousin the Grey Heron, these birds 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 around the world from North and South America to Australasia. They have been classed as Least Concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List. In recent years their population has increased in some areas, such as North America, thanks to protection of their feeding grounds and the creation of artificial nesting sites. However, populations in other areas, such as Madagascar, have decreased because of egg theft, pollution and land drainage. In the 19th Century they were hunted for the long plumes of feathers that they develop in the breeding season, for use in hat-making, but they are now a protected species. The oldest Great White Egret known to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology was 22 years old.
As their name suggests, Great White Egrets have pure white plumage. In winter they have black legs and orange beak. In summer they have orange tints on their legs and their beaks are black. They can stand up to a metre tall (39in) and their wingspan is around 1.5m (60in). Females and males are similar in appearance. Their diet includes fish, mice and voles, aquatic snails and insects, shrimps and frogs. They may even eat small birds and lizards.
These birds migrate, eg from Austria and Hungary to the Mediterranean in winter, or in Africa from dry areas to wet areas. They 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. The female lays up to five eggs. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs and finding food. The eggs hatch after about 25 days, and the chicks have white, fluffy feathers. Chicks are able to leave the nest and walk around at about a month old, and they can fly at about two months old. They are fed regurgitated food by their parents until they learn to feed themselves.
In the UK, Great White Egrets are most often found on the south coast of England (in 2012 two pairs raised chicks in Somerset). However, they may also be seen in other areas, such as RSPB Burton Mere in the north west of England, or RSPB Conwy in North Wales.
There are 14 other members of the Ardea 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 via grey.
Some populations are increasing, namely those of the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) of North and Central America, the Cocoi Heron (Ardea cocoi) of South America and the Black Headed Heron (Ardea melanocephala) of Africa. Others in the genus are classed as Least Concern but their population is decreasing, such as the Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea of Africa, Europe and Asia or the Intermediate Egret (Ardea intermedia) of South Asia. However, other members of the genus are even less fortunate.
The Great White Heron (Ardea occidentalis) that is only found around Florida and Cuba, is classed as Endangered as its population has decreased since the 1980s and there are estimated to be fewer than 2,500 mature birds left in the wild. The Madagascar Heron (Ardea humbloti), which is found only in Madagascar, is also Endangered - there are estimated to be no more than 1,500 left in the wild. The White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis) is Critically Endangered - the population of mature individuals is estimated to be less than 250, and they are found only in an area between Bhutan and Myanmar in Asia.
There are other birds with 'egret' in their names, such as the Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and the Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) but these are not members of the Ardea genus, although they are members of the heron family (Ardeidae) and are similarly long-legged and long-necked birds.