After Near-Egress from the States, Egrets Make Great Strides to Recovery

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The gracile Great Egret stalks clearings and waterways from the Americas to Europe and Africa, tall and stately, long of leg and neck and possessed of a most unmusical croaking call. Equally at home in fresh-, salt- and brackish-water habitat, these wading birds spear frogs, fish, crabs, even mice and voles, flipping them with their bills to swallow whole. These days it seems impossible to imagine Great Egrets growing scarce in North America, but they were once hunted nearly to extinction.

In the 1800s, egret and heron species in the United States were slaughtered wholesale for their feathers. Hunters eager to harvest the snow-white, trailing plume feathers—only present on breeding birds—decimated entire rookeries of these waders, killing and plucking the adults and leaving their eggs and chicks to perish. The plumes were considered high fashion in the millinery trade, adorning hats and other couture articles of the day. Thankfully, in Boston some of the country's first bird conservationists—Harriet Hemenway and her cousin, Minna Hall—did much to put an end to this practice, and their success gave impetus to future conservation efforts. Hence the National Audubon Society's logo-as-homage: an egret in flight.

After plume hunting was banned in the early 20th century, egret populations in the United States quickly recovered, and have since even expanded in places. The breeding range of the Great Egret, for instance, appears to be spreading northward, creeping up both coasts and spilling into the Midwest. Similarly, more and more egrets seem disinclined to leave those northerly latitudes in winter, instead staying on as year-round residents wherever ice-free waters are found.