Called “Great” to distinguish it from the smaller Snowy Egret, the brilliantly white Great Egret stands about 3-feet tall and boasts a nearly 5-foot wing span. An apex predator, the Great Egret has hunted subtropical ecosystems throughout the world for at least 7 million years.
If you visit the beach, a pond, or marshland, you’ll likely come upon a Great Egret hunting among the reeds in shallow water. Stately and elegant, it stands stock still. Only to lunge suddenly, grabbing or stabbing prey with its long yellow beak. I’ve seen Great Egret snagging meals as large as catfish, as slippery as eels, as tasty as crayfish, and as tiny as a damselfly.
In the case of the Egret in the photo above, he made up in volume what his prey lacked in size, catching and then consuming a steady supply of small fish, each of which he would toss in the air before swallowing whole.
Though the North American subspecies of the Great Egret, Ardea alba egretta, outlived the mastodons and saber-toothed cats it shared the continent with, it barely survived the nineteenth century. Along with other bird species—hummingbirds, parrots, ibis, grebes, pheasants, owls, pelican, and many others—the Great Egret suffered catastrophic deprivation, losing as much as 95% of its population to the plume hunters that annihilated millions of birds for the US and UK millinery trade. Both the Great Egret and the Snowy Egret (called the Little Egret elsewhere in the world) owe their survival to the American Ornithologists Union, the UK’s RSPB, the then-fledgling Audubon Society, and to boycotts organized by Harriet Hemenway, the founder of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and her cousin Minna B. Hall.
Why bring up this ugly chapter of human history? Because today greed and ignorance threaten the annihilation of the African Elephant and Rhinoceros, species being systematically killed by poachers for their tusks and horns, respectively. Though people prize them as aphrodisiacs and health cures (when ground into powder form), the tusks and horns offer no true medicinal qualities. They’re simply keratin, the same protein that develops into our skin, hair, and nails.