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Great Egret - BirdForum Opus

(Redirected from Ardea alba)
Subspecies modesta displaying ornamental plumes and breeding color changes in bill, lores and legs
Photo © by Alok Tewari
Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur, India, 5 July 2016

Alternative names: Great White Egret, White Heron, Common Egret, American Egret

Includes: Eastern Great Egret

Ardea alba


Subspecies alba
Photo © by Duke Leto
Lesvos, Greece, May 2011

80–104 cm (31.5-41 in). Weight 950g. The largest egret.

  • Large white bird
  • legs/feet black in American populations, yellow in European birds of subspecies alba and greyish in non-breeding east Asian modesta.
  • bill yellow in most stages. Becomes black in short "high breeding" period (at least in Europe)
  • lores yellow in most birds, but America birds show green lores in high breeding
  • ornamental plumes in breeding plumage shows

Similar Species

  • Slightly smaller and with a much slimmer build than Great Blue Heron or Grey Heron
  • Most of the year, distinguished from other egrets by combination of leg/foot and bill color.
  • extent of gape in relation to eye can help distinguish from other species
  • neck often with marked kink (more so than other similar species)

Intermediate Egret (which see) can be very similar, especially in south-east asian populations.


Subspecies modesta non-breeding
Photo © by tcollins
Darwin, Northern Territory Australia, 21 May 2011

A very widespread bird occurring in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australasia.

In North America breeds in the west in Oregon and California and over much of the east from southern Ontario and Long Island southwards. Breeds throughout Mexico, Central America and the West Indies and throughout South America except the higher mountains and Patagonia. Post-breeding dispersal takes birds far north and south of main breeding range and vagrants recorded in Newfoundland, on Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands. A local breeder in the Western Palearctic, after declining for many years has now begun to increase and spread. Breeds in Austria and Hungary, at Lake Skadar on the Montenegro-Albania border, the Danube Delta and at scattered sites in the Ukraine and across southern Russia to the Caspian. Breeding has also recently taken place in the Netherlands, Germany and Slovakia, Poland, Belarus, and Latvia. A rapid colonisation is also occurring in Lithuania, having first bred in 2005 and now taking place in three locations, autumn counts have also expanded to the extent that flocks of up to 300 now occur in prime localities (compared to just odd individuals in the early 1990s). In 1994 the first breeding for France occurred and small numbers now breed in northern Italy. A pair at the Ebro Delta in 1997 was the first breeding record for Spain.

In winter occurs on the north and east coasts of the Adriatic Sea, in southern Greece and western Turkey, in Tunisia, the Nile Delta and in southern Iraq. Increasingly recorded in the Camargue where more than 100 now occur in winter. A vagrant to all European countries, north to Britain, (c.200), Ireland and Norway and throughout the Mediterranean and on the Canaries. Vagrancy is increasing in most areas as population and range increases. Recently recorded for the first time in Iceland. Extremely rare on the Azores and presumably these records involve American race egretta which has also been recorded in the British Isles.

More widespread in Asia breeding from the Caspian Sea and Iran east to the Russian Far East, Korea and southern Japan and south to Malaysia, Indonesia and New Guinea. Northern birds vacate breeding areas in winter. Mainly coastal in Australia but can occur throughout the continent and now breeds on South Island, New Zealand.

Occurs almost throughout sub-Saharan Africa but actual breeding range is little-known. Has been recorded breeding in west, east and southern Africa.


Subspecies modesta closeup showing color changes in bill and lores at "high breeding" period
Photo © by Alok Tewari
Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur, India, 22 June 2017

Various authors also identify this species as Egretta alba and Casmerodius albus. However, this species closely resembles the large Ardea herons such as Grey Heron and Great Blue Heron in everything but colour, whereas it shows fewer similarities to the smaller white egrets.

Subspecies modesta is increasingly being proposed for full species status, "Eastern Great Egret", Ardea modesta. If recognized, this form would replace alba from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh east to south-east China and north to the far east of Russia. It would be found from there to Australia and New Zealand. These birds are quite a bit smaller than European alba and with greyish tibia in non-breeding plumage.


Subspecies egretta, breeding
Photo © by Gene
Illinois, 24 April 2004

Clements recognises the following subspecies [1]:


V-Formation Flight Pattern
Photo © by jjbpixels
Munich, Germany, 3 December 2023

Lakes and marshes, wet meadows and grassland, breeds in reedbeds or other dense vegetation. On passage and in winter also on mudflats, estuaries and brackish lagoons.


It is a conspicuous species, usually easily seen.


Described as mostly silent outside of breeding colonies, but a number of sounds have been described. The most common sound is a low pitch croaking sound heard from birds scared into flight. Around the nest, the adults greet each others with a number of calls, some described as "Rha" or "Cra" and another described as laughing. Young beg with a "Ket" call, given as a repeated series. There might be regional differences in sounds given.

Recording by Alok Tewari
Keoladeo National Park, India, Dec-2016
Croaking call given in flight and on alighting.


Slow flight with retracted neck, characteristic of herons/bitterns (can occasionally be extended, but rarely for long); this distinguishes it from cranes and spoonbills (extended necks).


Feeds in shallow water or drier habitats, spearing fish, frogs or insects with its long, sharp bill. It will often wait motionless for prey, or slowly stalk its victim.


Colonial nesters, often with other egret species, the stick nest is built in a shrub or tree. The clutch consists of up to 6 pale greenish-blue eggs.


Click images to see larger version


  1. Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, S. M. Billerman, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2019. The eBird/Clements Checklist of Birds of the World: v2019. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/
  2. Cornell Lab, All About Birds
  3. Birdforum thread discussing taxonomy of Great Egret including the possible split of modesta (especially second part of the thread).
  4. The Heron Conservation page on Great Egret
  5. Svensson, L., K. Mullarney and D. Zetterstrom (2009): Birds of Europe, second edition, Princeton Field Guides. ISBN 978-0-691-14392-7
  6. McCrimmon Jr., D. A., J. C. Ogden, and G. T. Bancroft (2011). Great Egret (Ardea alba), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.570
  7. Martínez-Vilalta, A., Motis, A., Kirwan, G.M. & Boesman, P. (2020). Great White Egret (Ardea alba). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from https://www.hbw.com/node/52684 on 26 February 2020).
  8. Hancock, J. & J.Kushlan. 1984. The Herons Handbook. Harper & Row, New York.

Recommended Citation

External Links

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