A white bird stands out. A white bird standing in a local stream or reservoir hardly seems to fit this area with its sagebrush and mountains. The snowy egret would fit better in Florida mangrove swamps. Its regal look is an entirely white plumage, along with a long, slender black bill, slender black legs and bright yellow feet.
Of course, the snowy egret is only one of three egrets seen locally. The snowy egret is the only one with a black bill. The other two egrets have yellow bills. The great egret is considerably larger than the snowy and has black legs. It is often seen standing in deeper water to feed. The cattle egret is smaller and more compact, with yellow legs. It is most often seen in fields, near livestock.
One way you might see snowy egrets is in their nesting colonies, often in willow thickets along the Humboldt River. The white birds stand out among the green willows. There may be several dozen in the willows and others flying overhead.
The snowy egret eats a variety of water-related food, like worms, aquatic insects, crayfish, snails, fish, frogs, toads, lizards, and snakes. Their diet is mostly composed of 75% fish and 25% crustaceans.
It uses those bright yellow legs to capture prey. It may walk slowly through shallow water, then run ahead to startle prey. It may use those feet to stir or rake the bottom. It may run, hop, or stand with its wings open to attract prey. It can also forage while flying by dragging its feet, or hovering, and can pluck prey from the water while in midair.
Only during the height of the breeding season are the feet orangish yellow. The rest of the year, the feet are more greenish yellow. During breeding season, the bare skin on their face changes color from yellow to reddish. To attract a female, the male pumps his body up and down with his bill pointed towards the sky, while calling.
The nest is a loose pile of sticks in a tree near other egret nests. The female generally lays 3-6 eggs which both parents incubate. After hatching, the young are covered in white down feathers and the adults remove the eggshells from the nest.
Snowy egret populations were decimated in the late 1800s by plume hunters. Their feathers were in great demand for women’s hats. They were killed to obtain the delicate recurved breeding plumes on the bird’s back. These plumes were known in the millinery trade as “cross aigrettes” or “short whites.” The plumes of the great egret were known as “long whites”. In 1886, plumes were valued at $32 per ounce, twice the price of gold at the time.
In 1910, most hunting ceased due to concern over the slaughter of egrets. In 1901 The Audubon Model Law was passed, protecting water birds from plume hunting. In 1905, the National Audubon Society was founded to protect waterbirds.
In 1918, President Wilson signed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which to this day protects wild North American birds. Shortly after that, the Audubon Society established a system of waterbird sanctuaries along the eastern coast of the U.S.