This elegant heron is completely white with its magnificent plumage, reminding lace. The bill of the Great egret is sharp, long and yellow in color. The bird has long, black feet and legs. During the breeding season, the bill becomes a bit darker while the legs get lighter. This bird possesses a very long neck, exceeding the length of its body. The bird has a notable kink of its neck, curving the necks into a "S" shape when flying. Male and female egrets generally look similar, though females are a bit smaller than males. Young egrets usually look like non-breeding adults. During the breeding season, these birds grow long, lacy shaped feathers known as "aigrettes”, stretching them in an impressive display.
This bird is widely distributed throughout the world including North and South Americas, Eurasia, Africa and Australia. In Africa, they can be found only outside the breeding season. Great egrets prefer living near any water body, occurring along streams, lakes, in saltwater and freshwater marshes, muddy areas and ponds. Just like other heron species, these birds are most frequently found in wetlands and wooded swamps.
Great egrets are diurnal feeders. They can feed both in flocks of their own kind and these of other heron species. In sunset, egrets of surrounding areas usually come together, roosting in colonies. They feed in shallow water, walking slowly and looking for prey. And when the prey is spotted, they abruptly thrust the bill into the water, catching it. They will also steal a great part of their food from smaller heron species. After breeding, these birds usually disperse. Egrets, living in mild climates, remain in their breeding areas throughout the winter while those, breeding in northern regions where water freezes during the winter, have to migrate. As many bird species, Great egrets become rather aggressive when it comes to feeding, even if there's abundance of food. Occasionally, even parents can fight for food with their young.
Great egrets are carnivores (piscivores). Their usual diet consists primarily of fish. However, they can feed upon wide variety of aquatic animals, including frogs and crustaceans. They will also consume terrestrial species such as rodents and grasshoppers.
Great egrets are seasonally monogamous, mating once in a mating season and staying with their mates until the end of the season. Usually, males give a number of displays in order to attract the female. Then they select the territory. The breeding season starts in the middle of April, when the birds construct nests. They build their nests in wetlands or wooded swamps with these of other herons, usually nesting in colonies. They try to construct their nests as high as possible. Great egrets' nests are typically unstable platforms, made of stems, sticks and twigs. Great egrets rear one brood of chicks a year. The female lays the eggs, after which both parents take part in the incubation for 23-24 days. An average egret clutch contains 3 to 4 eggs. After 3 weeks, the chicks start to climb about the nest. Then, after another 3-4 weeks, the young fledge. At the age of 2 years, the egrets are able to yield offspring.
In the past, Great egrets were highly threatened due to their feathers, used in plume trade. Nowadays, these birds suffer from loss and degradation of their wetland habitat due to invasion of exotic plants, excessive salinity, burning, clearing, drainage and grazing. On the other hand, populations in Madagascar are likely to decrease because of local people, collecting their eggs and chicks.
The exact number of their global population is presently unknown. However, only in North America, there are around 180,000 estimated breeding pairs of this bird. The European population of Great egrets estimated at 20,700-34,900 pairs. On the IUCN Red List, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC).
On one hand, these birds control populations of fish and insects within their range. On the other hand, they themselves are key prey species for local predators.