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 AND BITTERNS
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.
have the right idea: don't dress up when you get married.
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Update: June 2012