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Aigrettes on Display

Snowy Egrets turn heads most of the year. But during breeding season, males develop even more elaborate plumage on their chest, head and back and sport reddish-orange feet and lores (the area, normally yellow, between the eyes and the beak). The handsome fellow displaying in the photo above even has a reddish tinge to his eyes.

To find a mate, the males proudly show off the ornate nuptial plumes (or aigrettes) that waft and billow in the breeze as they strut, display, and engage in a behavior called “skypointing”—holding their beaks straight up (as if pointing to the sky) and often lunging or jabbing upwards—an activity both inviting and aggressive, meant to attract females but intimidate other males.

For several years, we were lucky to get a very close look at a heronry in Northern California that included Snowy Egret, Great Egret, and Black-crowned Night Heron. The Snowies here got off to an early start, developing breeding plumage and starting nesting behavior as early as March. We watched the males fly back to the heronry with nesting material in their beaks, pass branches to their mates, display near their nests, and fly off to search for more branches and for food. Both adults (male and female) took turns sitting on and turning eggs during incubation. And both hunted for food and fed the chicks. We also saw chicks with pin feathers grow to immature birds that fledged and began exploring their surroundings, as you can see in the photos, below.

From coast to coast, Snowy Egrets (together with other heron species) gather in large colonies of as many as a thousand birds. Years ago, in Venice, Florida, we saw Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, and Green-backed Heron sharing an island nesting colony with Anhinga. But colonial nesting behavior predates even the ancient heron species from which modern egrets evolved. Paleoanthropologists have found that Therapods, the dinosaur species from which all birds evolved, engaged in colonial nesting during the Triassic period. So what we witness when we watch Snowy Egret raise their young in local parks and nature preserves allows us to glimpse a truly ancient practice dating back nearly 250 million years.