Great Egret: Graceful White Wader

The elegant flight and bright white plumage of the great egret (Ardea alba) belie its harsh croak when it takes off from a marsh. It was this bird’s beauty that nearly led to its demise at the turn of the twentieth century, when these and other waders were hunted for their feathery plumes that women wore in their hats.

Since then, the great egret, standing more than 3 feet tall with a nearly 5-foot wing span, has become the symbol for the National Audubon Society, founded in part to stop these birds from being killed to extinction.

Great egrets spend winter as far south as the West Indies, Central America, and South America. In spring, they migrate in small flocks during the day, eventually choosing a place farther north to raise young in nests close to trees and shrubs called colonies, often with other large waders including the great blue heron.

PHOTO: Great egret (Ardea alba).
A great egret (Ardea alba) fishes; in the background is a great blue heron. Photo © Carol Freeman

During breeding season, a patch of skin on the bird’s face turns green, contrasting with the bright yellow bill. Males perform fancy courtship displays, opening up and fluffing their white plumes that grow to extend beyond their backs.

Both male and female build a platform-style nest of sticks in a tree or shrub often toward the top and above or near water. The female lays three to four greenish-blue eggs and gets help from her mate during incubation. 

When the young hatch in about 24 days, the nestlings begin their incessant croaking—getting louder as they grow older—and beg for regurgitated food from their parents.

PHOTO: Great egret (Ardea alba).
A great egret in flight over the lagoons. Photo © Carol Freeman

The great egret mostly eats fish, but it also dines on frogs, snakes, and aquatic insects such as dragonflies, and even grasshoppers and rodents in fields near their nesting territories.

The egret wades slowly through the water up to its belly looking for prey. Suddenly, it will stop and stand still, its motionless legs likely looking like branches to a fish, which will come closer, and then get snatched up by the hungry wader. The bird swallows the prey head first, sometimes having to flip it up in the air and catch it so it will be in the right direction to go down smoothly.

Come late summer and autumn, great egrets gather in loose feeding flocks, sometimes creating a sea of white in a wetland and a stunning spectacle for observers.

PHOTO: Great egret (Ardea alba).
A great egret wades in the Skokie Lagoons. Photo © Carol Freeman

Once on the state endangered species list, the great egret is doing well in Illinois; however, habitat loss and water pollution may threaten its future. Visit Baker’s Lake in Barrington to watch the great egret during breeding season and McGinnis Slough in Palos Park late summer to watch large feeding flocks as they head south for the winter.

The great egret is the June bird species highlighted by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Come #birdthepreserves with the FPDCC; view the list of upcoming events for free events near you.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Baltimore Oriole: Suburban Garden Songster

In early May, when the leaves of maples are unfolding into a soft green, the Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula) returns, giving his liquid “tea-dear-dear” song in suburban yards and forest preserve edges.

Homeowners who put oranges and grape jelly in feeders are often rewarded with a look at the male with his black head and back contrasting with his brilliant orange breast as he eats a spring meal.

PHOTO: A male Baltimore oriole sits amid the grapevines.
A male Baltimore oriole sits amid the grapevines. Photo © Carol Freeman

Later, the female, with a dusky-colored head and yellowish-orange breast, will come. If she sees some 12-inch-long soft strings of light-colored yarn put out by humans, she may snatch them to make her nest. A common breeding bird of open woodlands, natural spaces, gardens, and parklands, the oriole has returned from its winter in the South: Florida, the Caribbean islands, southern Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.

PHOTO: A female Baltimore oriole enjoys nectar from an apple blossom in the spring.
A female Baltimore oriole enjoys nectar from an apple blossom in the spring. Photo © Carol Freeman

By May, Baltimore orioles have arrived in the eastern United States to set up breeding territories. To get her attention, the male hops around the female, spreads his wings, and bows forward. The female responds by fanning her tail, fluttering her wings, and chattering. The female weaves plant fibers including grapevine bark, grass, and other materials such as yarn (and even horsehair) to build a hanging, pendulous, pouch-like nest. Typically, orioles nest about 20 to 40 feet high at the end of a branch. Their preferred locations are on cottonwoods, American elms, and maples.

PHOTO: Baltimore oriole nest.
The Baltimore oriole nest is a labor of love. Photo © Carol Freeman

In his Life Histories of North American Birds series, Arthur Cleveland Bent noted that the oriole is “perhaps the most skillful artisan of any North American bird.” Those lucky enough to see an oriole nest will most likely agree. It can take a week to ten days for the female to complete her nest. She’ll then lay three to seven pale eggs blotched with brown, which hatch in 11 to 14 days. The young remain in the nest for another 11 to 14 days, getting fed constantly by their parents, until they’re able to hop out onto a branch, exercise their wings, and then fledge.

These colorful birds eat insects, fruit, and nectar, (and grape jelly!), and can help keep populations of pests such as gypsy moth caterpillars in check. Agile members of the blackbird family, orioles can hang upside down and walk across twigs, or fly directly from perches to grab flying insects. Besides the “tea-dear-dear” song, orioles also give a series of chatters and scolding notes, which can alert you to their presence.

As summer goes on, the orioles seem to disappear, spending most of their time feeding young and less time singing and chattering. But come mid-August to early September, the orioles start singing again—often shorter songs—before they leave for winter vacation.

Come #birdthepreserves with the Forest Preserves of Cook County; view the list of upcoming events for free events near you.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org