Great news about the Great Egret

The Great Egret is increasing in numbers in both Europe and North America.

We hear so much gloomy news about declining numbers of birds these days, so it’s always a delight to hear of birds increasing in numbers and range. Such is the case with the Great Egret (Ardea alba). This beautiful bird, once a rare sight in western Europe, is now becoming a much more common sight.

Great Egret, Belgium

It has rebounded after populations were decimated in the 18th and 19th centuries when the use of egret plumes in the millinery trade became fashionable. Many adult egrets were killed during the breeding season; a slaughter that ceased only in the second decade of the twentieth century. This, combined with the draining of the wetlands that are their favored habitat, led to the Great Egret disappearing from many countries.

“The feathers of the male are much sought after as decorations, which in the East are a sign of  great dignity and are highly prized; formerly they were used in Europe as ornamentation by knights and the fair sex.”

Władysław Taczanowski, Polish zoologist, 1882 

Since the 1980s however, the Great Egret has been on the increase. In Europe the breeding range has expanded to the north and west, and the species nested for the first time in 13 countries, including Sweden and England. Since 2000 there has also been a substantial increase in the wintering populations in western and central Europe. Flocks of several hundred individuals are regularly reported from some countries.

Great Egret in flight

Also increasing in North America

The Great Egret was also very nearly wiped out in the United States in the late 1800s, also because its plumes were sought for use in fashion. However, after early conservationists put a stop to the slaughter and protected its colonies, the Great Egret made a comeback. As a result, this bird became the symbol of the National Audubon Society.

Why is the Great Egret increasing?

  • Changes in the availability of foraging habitat and food
  • The cessation of persecution and related human-induced mortality
  • Improved legal protection
  • Climate change.

I had never seen a Great Egret until about 20 years ago and now I see one fairly regularly near my home in Belgium. Last weekend I was delighted to see three together in my local fields.

Three Great Egrets, Dorenveld, Kortenberg

Are you too seeing more Great Egrets these days? Where? Feel free to drop a comment below about your Great Egret sightings.

Great Egret and Egyptian Goose

All photos ©Denzil Walton


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