Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens)
- Texas Status
Reddish egrets grow to a height of 27 to 32 inches (68 to 82 cm), with a wingspan reaching 46 to 49 inches (116 to 124 cm). Their distinguishing characteristics include two distinctly different color phases: a dark phase and a white phase. Reddish egrets in the dark phase are gray with a reddish head and neck feathers. They have bluish legs and a pink bill with a dark tip. In the white phase, these birds will have white feathers, bluish legs, a pink bill with dark tip, and long shaggy plumes on their heads and necks during breeding season.
- Life History
The reddish egret, a beautiful wading bird, is a permanent resident of the Texas coast. Although recognized as one species, reddish egrets may be either white (white phase) or gray with a reddish or rusty colored head and neck (dark phase). It is currently listed in Texas as a threatened species. Reddish egrets can live up to 12 years.
Reddish egrets reach sexual maturity at three to four years. Their mating season is from early March through late July. Their nests are made of sticks either on the ground or in a bush or tree up to 20 feet (6 m) high. In Texas, nests are built mostly on the ground near a bush or prickly pear cactus or on an oyster shell beach. The nest may be up to 10 inches (25.4 cm) thick with a diameter of 12 to 26 inches (30 to 66 cm). Both parents build the nest, and sticks are continuously added to the nest during incubation. The length of their incubation period is unknown, but estimated to be 25-26 days. Reddish egrets sometimes nest alongside other birds such as herons, egrets, cormorants and spoonbills. Their predators include raccoons, coyotes and great-tailed grackles, which destroy their eggs and eat the young birds.
Nests usually contain three to four, smooth, pale blue-green eggs with no markings. Two dark phase birds can have white phase chicks, but two white phase birds can never have dark phase chicks. When a dark phase bird and a white phase bird mate, their chicks are almost always dark phase. The white phase of the reddish egret was once thought to be a completely different species. In Texas, only 10 to 20 percent of the reddish egret population is white phase. In the 1950s, just four percent of the whole United States' population was white phase.
The reddish egret is crepuscular (it is most active at dawn and dusk). When feeding, reddish egrets will spread their wings to create shade and reduce glare so that they can see their prey more easily in the water. Small fish, frogs, tadpoles and crustaceans make up most of their diet. When chasing fish, they also run in circles. Reddish egrets use their long, spear-like bills to stab their prey. After feeding, reddish egrets regurgitate all the inedible parts of their prey, such as bones, much like owls do. Parents feed their young by regurgitating into the chicks' mouths.
Reddish egrets are most often found in salt and brackish water wetlands.
The reddish egret can be found along the Gulf Coast of Texas and some parts of Louisiana and southern Florida. It is rare along the Gulf Coast of Mexico, West Indies and Baja California.
Until the late 1800s, reddish egrets were hunted for their feathers, which were used to decorate ladies' hats and clothing. The entire United States population of reddish egrets was nearly exterminated by hunters. The reddish egret completely disappeared from Florida. In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed, finally protecting reddish egrets and other birds from plumage hunters. Although their populations are still recovering, it is a slow process. There are only 1,500 to 2,000 nesting pairs of reddish egrets in the United States - and most of these are in Texas. Intrusion of habitat by recreationists, pesticide runoff and land development all harm the reddish egret's habitat.