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Feeding Time

By the time they’re three to four weeks old, Snowy Egret “chicks” rival their parents in size and have grown near-adult plumage. They can hop from branch to branch and “fly” short distances. But they can’t fly very far or hunt for themselves, and they spend most of their time watching impatiently for an adult to return with food.

Juvenile snowies require even more food than they did as chicks, so the adults often stay out longer each time they leave the rookery. And when they return, feeding looks more like a full-contact sport.

A returning adult usually lands a slight distance away, possibly to take a few minutes to bring partially digested food into their crop for easier regurgitation—and gird themselves for the experience to come. When they’re ready, they fly to the hungry adolescents and brace for the feeding frenzy. Unless, that is, the eagle-eyed youngsters, aware of their arrival, race off to meet the adult ASAP.
Two Juvenile Snowy Egret Hunt Side-by-Side in a Shallow Pond. Bayland Rookery, California.
Once the adult is within striking range, a juvenile will immediately attempt to grab and hold on to the beak, an action that encourages the adult to regurgitate the food in its crop. I’ve seen juveniles pull an adult’s head down so forcefully it nearly causes the parent to lose its balance. I’ve seen hungry fledglings miss the beak and grab the neck by mistake. I’ve also seen (and photographed) a juvenile grabbing a parent’s leg to prevent it from leaving. Sometimes I wonder if the adults ever think twice about coming back to face another round, but they seem always to return to feed their voracious youngsters.

I haven’t read (or found) articles that address when and how Snowy Egret adults wean their chicks. Whether the adults simply leave the young at the appropriate time or begin to feed them less and less to encourage them to fend for themselves. But shortly after they fledge and make short-distance flights away from the nesting area, young snowy egrets do begin to hunt on their own. Or, at least, go through the motions of hunting. Sometimes in pairs, as in the photo on the right. (See the ripple in the water beneath the juvenile on the right? It shows he’s already leaned to wiggle his toes back and forth to encourage fish to dart away and expose themselves to a sudden strike.)