They are a familiar sight here in South Louisiana but to those unaccustomed to seeing large, exotic-looking, pure white birds hanging out so close to humans, it must be fascinating. The Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) is often seen still-hunting for fish, insects and crustaceans in roadside ditches and waterways, or flying elegantly above our neighborhoods. They also happen to be part of the Camp Salmen Nature Park logo because there always seems to be one or two of them stalking the banks on our part of Bayou Liberty.
They are a big bird in stature only, standing two feet tall with a three foot wingspan, yet they weigh only about three-quarters of a pound. I once found one that had just been struck by a car and, as it was the first time I ever had an opportunity to lay hands on one, I was astonished at how remarkably light it was; like a bird ought to be, I supposed.
Egrets have bright yellow feet that apparently help scare up their prey, long, spindly black legs for wading that stick straight out behind them as they fly. There is a long, pointy, black beak on the other end; all the better for plucking up the small animals they eat. If need be they can adroitly toss their victim in the air to catch it and reposition it for swallowing. Their slender neck is usually coiled in a graceful “S” shape while standing or in flight but stretches out straight when they gulp their catch.
They usually find an isolated spot nearby to roost together up off the ground for the night. They seek even more remote locations to build their rickety nests in trees for group breeding. It’s an awesome sight to come across dozens of their stark white forms nesting together deep in a dark cypress forest.
The species got into real trouble at the turn of the last century because their breeding season plumage, a cascade of special, lacy white feathers, were considered quite fashionable on a lady’s hat. Since the value of these feathers exceeded that of gold, they were slaughtered on an industrial scale to near extinction. This problem actually gave rise to the nation’s first wildlife sanctuaries. Fortunately, this happened at the same time women’s fashions lurched off in other directions.