Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Egrets and Bitterns
Nature Bulletin No. 200-A   October 2, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Egrets are the elegant aristocrats of the heron family. Their beauty almost caused their extinction. Women coveted the long graceful lace- like plumes, or "aigrettes", with which these birds are adorned during the breeding season, for hats and other ornaments. In great rookeries among the swamps along the Gulf coast, they were slaughtered by the thousands, and the helpless young were left to die. By 1900, few remained. Largely through the efforts of the Audubon societies which obtained and enforced protective laws, and established sanctuaries, the egrets were saved and now are steadily increasing in numbers.

The American Egret is smaller than the great blue heron but, because of its white plumage, appears as large. It is distinguished from the Snowy Egret and immature little blue herons by its greater size, yellow bill, and black legs and feet. During the breeding season it wears a train of about 50 narrow plumes that extend from between the shoulders to and beyond the tail. As the bird alights upon me ground, or in a tree, these plumes seem to rise and float in the air.

Egrets have a habit, known as "reverse migration", of wandering northward and westward after the nesting season, up the rivers and along the coasts. In early days, when there were millions of them in the great cypress swamps, these mid-summer migrations probably extended over much of the United States and into Canada. For many years, however, none had been seen in the Chicago region until about 1930 when two appeared at McGinnis Slough in the Palos forest preserves. Since then their numbers have steadily increased. This year an American egret in full breeding plumage was observed on Longjohn Slough in May, and a few of these birds were found nesting in the big Horicon Marsh in southeastern Wisconsin.

Accompanying the egrets, we frequently observe a few smaller birds, snowy white except for a tinge of blue on the wings, with dull-greenish legs and bluish bills tipped with black. These are immature little blue herons. The dark slaty-blue adults are rarely seen here.

The Snowy Egret is about the same size as the little blue heron but has a black bill and black legs with yellow feet -- "the bird with the golden slippers". It has the peculiar habit, when feeding, of shuffling about in the water, so as to stir up food with its feet. During the breeding season, its exquisite plumes upon the head, neck, breast and back make it even more spectacular than the American egret. In past years, Snowy egrets were observed in Saganashkee Slough. The Reddish Egret of the Gulf Coast is never seen this far north.

The bitterns, closely related to the herons, but more stocky, are secretive solitary birds of the marshes and sloughs. The American Bittern, quite common here, is a reddish-brown bird with a streaked breast and black wing-tips. Like all hermits, this bittern is a peculiar character regarded with suspicion by superstitious folks. Thoreau called it, "the genius of the bog' . It stands with its bill pointed skyward, so motionless that, in open water, it may be mistaken for a dead snag or stump. Among the cattails and rushes it is almost invisible and will not flush unless almost stepped on. The male is famous for his remarkable "love-song": a series of slow deep resonant notes that resemble the sucking noise of an old wooden pump or, from a distance, like the strokes of a mallet driving a stake. Hence its common names: "Thunder-pumper" and "stake-driver".

The Least Bittern, about the size of a meadowlark, is fairly common but so small, so wary, and so elusive that it is rarely seen.

Bitterns have the right idea: don't dress up when you get married.

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