The Little egret is a small and elegant member of the heron family. Its plumage is normally entirely white, although there are dark forms with largely bluish-grey plumage. During the winter the plumage is similar but the scapulars are shorter and more normal in appearance. The bill is long and slender and the lores (the region between the eyes and nostrils) are black. There is an area of greenish-grey bare skin at the base of the lower mandible and around the eye which has a yellow iris. The legs are black and the feet yellow. Juveniles are similar to non-breeding adults but have greenish-black legs and duller yellow feet, and may have a certain proportion of greyish or brownish feathers.
Little egrets are found in southern Europe, the Middle East, much of Africa and southern Asia. Northern European populations are migratory and mostly travel to Africa although some remain in southern Europe, while some Asian populations migrate to the Philippines. The eastern subspecies is resident in Indonesia and New Guinea, while other populations inhabit Australia and New Zealand, but do not breed in the latter. During the late twentieth century, the range of the Little egret expanded northwards in Europe and into the New World, where a breeding population was established on Barbados in 1994. The birds have since spread elsewhere in the Caribbean region and on the Atlantic coast of the United States. Little egrets live in various habitats including the shores of lakes, rivers, canals, ponds, lagoons, marshes and flooded land. These birds prefer open locations to dense cover. On the coast, they inhabit mangrove areas, swamps, mudflats, sandy beaches, estuaries, and reefs. Rice fields are an important habitat in Italy, and coastal and mangrove areas are important in Africa.
Little egrets are sociable birds and are often seen in small flocks. They are diurnal birds and feed mainly in the early morning and in the late afternoon. They use a variety of methods to procure their food; they stalk their prey in shallow water, often running with raised wings or shuffling their feet to disturb small fish, or may stand still and wait to ambush prey. Little egrets also make use of opportunities provided by cormorants disturbing fish or humans attracting fish by throwing bread into the water. On land, they walk or run while chasing their prey, feed on creatures disturbed by grazing livestock and ticks on the livestock, and even scavenge occasionally. Little egrets are silent birds in general, however, at their breeding colonies, they make various croaking and bubbling calls. When disturbed, they produce a harsh alarm call.
Little egrets are carnivorous birds. Their diet includes mainly fish, but they also eat amphibians, small reptiles, mammals and birds, as well as crustaceans, mollusks, insects, spiders, and worms.
Little egrets are monogamous. It means that males and females mate only with one partner. They nest in colonies, often with other wading birds. The nests are usually platforms of sticks built in trees or shrubs, or in reed beds or bamboo groves. In some locations such as the Cape Verde Islands, these birds nest on cliffs. Pairs defend a small breeding territory, usually extending around 3 to 4 m (10 to 13 ft) from the nest. The female lays 3 to 5 eggs which are incubated by both parents for 21 to 25 days. The eggs are oval in shape and have a pale, non-glossy, blue-green shell color. Upon hatching the chicks are covered in white down feathers and are cared for by both parents. Around 3 weeks after hatching the chicks start to move around the nest and climb into the close branches. They fledge after 40 to 45 days and are able to follow the adults to learn how to feed themselves.
At one time common in Western Europe, Little egrets were hunted extensively in the 19th century to provide plumes for the decoration of hats and became locally extinct in northwestern Europe and scarce in the south. Around 1950, conservation laws were introduced in southern Europe to protect these birds and their numbers began to increase. Today, these elegant birds are threatened by habitat loss and wetland degradation, pollution, and competition for nesting trees.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total population size of the Little egret is estimated to be around 660,000-3,150,000 individuals. The European population includes 66,700-84,800 pairs, which is around 133,000-170,000 mature individuals. Currently, Little egrets are classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and their numbers today are increasing.