ALWAYS IN SEASON: White egrets no longer surprise this far north

North Dakota generally is not considered good country for white egrets. Nevertheless, on a drive across the state last week, I saw two species of half a dozen that occur on the continent.

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Illustration by Mike Jacobs

North Dakota generally is not considered good country for white egrets. Nevertheless, on a drive across the state last week, I saw two species of half a dozen that occur on the continent.

These were the great egret and the snowy egret.

Our area has a fairly long but not very consistent association with these birds. Both species are more typical of the southeastern United States, and both are far more common there. They are associated especially with the great marshes and bayous, including Florida's Everglades and coastal Texas and Louisiana.

Egrets are great wanderers, and both snowy and white egrets have nested as far north as Manitoba. Of course, that brings them into-or at least over-both Minnesota and North Dakota.

Our history is both longer and more firmly established with the great egret. Manitoba's first record was in 1888, according to the Manitoba Naturalists Society's "Birds of Manitoba." Its second didn't come until 1955. More recently, the great egret has become established as a regular nesting species, though not a common one.


Robert Janssen, in "Birds in Minnesota," notes the great egret became a "casual late-summer visitant" in the 1930s and has increased in numbers and geographical extent since then.

Robert Stewart doesn't mention the species in his "Breeding Birds of North Dakota." Since his book was published, the species has been seen more regularly.

The snowy egret's history in our area is similar, but scaled back a little. Breeding has occurred in Manitoba in the marshes where the Red River flows into Lake Winnipeg, and there are nesting records for both North Dakota and Minnesota-more for Minnesota, not surprisingly, since it is closer to the historical range of these species.

One common thread in these histories is the late summer appearance of these birds. Apparently, the birds wander north after nesting season. Some find the area amenable and return to nest. The number of these varies year to year, but over time, the birds have become established nesters.

So the appearance of egrets is no longer surprising.

Easy to tell

These two species are easily separated.

The great egret is built like a great blue heron and acts like one, too, though it is a bit smaller. It is a large, white bird with long black legs and a yellow or orange bill. This makes it pretty close to unmistakable. The only bird it could be confused with here is the whooping crane, which remains an extremely rare bird-and a strictly migratory one.


The snowy egret is a white bird also, but it is smaller by half than the great egret, and it is more delicate. The bill and legs are black. A prancing bird displays bright yellow feet, almost as if it were wearing slippers.

Both species are wetland birds, usually seen singly or in small groups working the edges of shallow lakes and ponds. Great egrets are still hunters, waiting for prey to pass, and then using the bill to grab it from the water. This is the same hunting technique great blue herons use. Snowy egrets pace along stirring up the sediments along pond shores and then using the bill to pull prey from the resulting turmoil. This makes their brilliantly colored feet the more noticeable.

A great comeback

These species are colony nesters, and they sometimes occur in great groups. I once saw more than 50 in a shelterbelt near a wetland northwest of Grand Forks.

These two species are icons of the American conservation movement. They were widely hunted for their plumage, used to make hats for ladies. Both were brought to the brink of extinction but were saved by the efforts of what became the National Audubon Society. The great egret is the society's symbol.

A third species of white egret occurs here. This is the cattle egret, an immigrant from Africa that has overrun the continent. It is a highly variable species, showing up in big numbers some years and largely absent in others. It is a smaller, stockier bird than the snowy egret and it is altogether less graceful. Unlike the other egrets, this species often occurs on dry lands, often following herds of cattle. It snaps insects stirred up by the grazing animals.

North America has one other white egret, the great white heron, a color morph of the great blue heron that occurs only in extreme southern Florida. Two other species have white phases, the little blue heron and the reddish egret.

Plus, three additional Old World species have wandered to North America. These are the intermediate egret, Chinese egret and little egret.


The egrets and herons are pioneers. Perhaps these other species also will establish themselves in North America.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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