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SNOWY EGRET (Egretta thula)

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Snowy egret picture
Family: Ardeidae

Order: Ciconiiformes

STATUS: Species of Special Concern

DESCRIPTION: A small, all white egret with black bill and legs, and yellow feet. Adults have prominent white plumes during the breeding season, located on the head, neck, and scapulars; the latter are recurved and extend across the back to the tail. The snowy stands about 60 centimeters high, and has a 1 meter wingspread.

HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION: The snowy egret is widely distributed in both freshwater and coastal wetlands throughout temperate North and South America and have been considered fairly common Florida residents. Snowy egrets nest along the Atlantic coast between Florida and Maine, and west in the coastal plain to Texas and southern Oklahoma. Snowys also nest in scattered, inland colonies between New Mexico, Colorado, and California. The number of snowy egrets nesting in Florida was seriously depressed during the plume-hunting era, to the point where the species was considered to be extremely rare throughout the state by the early twentieth century. Snowys recovered quite rapidly following passage of protective legislation in 1910, and may have reached peak numbers for this century by the early 1930s. It is probably true that the largest colony in Florida today may only be one-tenth the size of the largest colony in the past.

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: They usually feed in flocks with other waders, in a wide variety of shallow marshes, edges of swamps or ponds, flooded ditches, or stream banks. Snowy egrets employ a variety of feeding techniques, including running through shallow water and flying low to strike at prey where water is too deep for wading. Their most common prey are small fish, insects, crustaceans, and shrimp.

Snowy egrets nest in mixed species colonies, often associated with great egrets and Louisiana herons. Snowy nests are often located in mangrove, Carolina willow, buttonbush, wax myrtle, and similar woody shrubs associated with aquatic habitats. Nesting in Florida generally occurs between March and August, although eggs may be laid as early as December during unusually warm winters in extreme south Florida. Clutch size ranges from 2 to 5 eggs. As with other species of waders, nesting success varies between colonies and years, depending upon food supply, predation, and other factors.

BASIS OF STATUS CLASSIFICATION: During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, egrets were slaughtered by plume hunters for their fine plumes that signaled courtship. Populations of egrets were driven nearly to extinction until legal protection stopped the commercial hunting. Slowly, egrets re-populated their former wetland areas. However, the snowy egret remains in a precarious position in Florida. In 1979, the snowy egret was classified as a "species of special concern" by the state. Human encroachment and land development, which destroy feeding and breeding areas, continue to threaten the species future.

Protection of this species consists of providing an effective zone that buffers the nesting sites. This "buffer zone" may extend into upland habitat. The extent of these buffers is based on existing State and/or Federal guidelines, or reflect the recommendations of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

Any activity proposed within a buffer zone would be subject to review. Activities that could be allowed in the buffer zone would be those activities which would not have any long term detrimental impact on the nesting birds. The following would be considered when making this determination: (1) the type of activity or construction planned and its' long term impacts; (2) the nature of the natural community that makes up the buffer zone (does it provide a visual barrier for any proposed nesting activities?); and (3) the timing of the proposed construction (does it occur outside the nesting season?).

RECOMMENDATIONS: The snowy egret is protected by law, as are many of its nesting and feeding sites. Recently biologists have observed a dramatic decline in the number of snowys during the last ten years and that the vast majority nested in small colonies, rather than in historically large rookeries. Halting this trend obviously calls for protection of remaining wetlands, and maintenance or re-establishment of adequate groundwater levels. Important nesting colonies throughout the state should be identified, and monitored, in an attempt to determine the number of snowy egrets remaining in Florida, and where the particularly serious declines are occurring.

Ogden, J.C. 1978. Snowy egret. Pp. 75-76. In H.W. Kale, II, (ed.), Rare and Endangered Biota of Florida. Birds. University Presses of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

Content updated Date July 20, 2004