Louisiana home to thousands of wading birds

Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Louisiana is home to many thousands of wading birds. They range in size from calf to thigh to waist high. Several of the medium-sized birds are white and a bit challenging to separate with a casual look. Wading birds nest in the spring and their offspring, called fledglings, disperse from their rookeries in the summer. These can be found here and there throughout the piney woods especially around swamps and lakes and along rivers especially where rice and crawfish are being cultivated.

The common white wading birds include Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Cattle Egret and White Ibis. Great Egrets can be easily separate from the others because they are the largest of the birds with conspicuous straight, pointed yellow bills. White Ibises are shorter than Great Egrets but have conspicuous decurved, reddish bills. Ibises are easily separated from the three medium-sized white wading birds which all have straight, pointed bills like Great Egrets.

And, just to be correct, there is a white-colored egret along our coast called the Reddish Egret! There are two genetic color phases, one is a reddish-gray color and the other is snow white! But, these egrets are found only on the coast and are considerably larger than our small white wading birds. Reddish Egrets are never very common and most readers are unlikely to encounter this species unless they regularly visit Grand Isle or the Cameron Parish beaches.

The Snowy Egret is snow white with a black bill and black legs but beautiful yellow feet. Some describe Snowy Egrets as the egrets with 'golden slippers'. Watch snowys carefully and you may see them stirring their feet to frighten prey into view so they can catch a meal. Snowy Egrets have beautiful white plumes during nesting season and many were slaughtered by plume hunters at the beginning of the 1900s. The McIlhenny family of Tabasco Sauce and Avery Island fame played an important part in saving these beautiful birds by establishing a nesting colony at Avery Island that is now widely known as Bird City.

Adult Little Blue Herons are an overall dark purple color but their fledglings are white and about the same size as Snowy Egrets. A key to separating the two species is to look at the bills and legs and feet of these two small white waders. White Little Blue Herons have dull bluish green bills and legs and feet that contrast dramatically with those of Snowy Egrets. As Little Blue Herons mature, they gradually add purple feathers and have been called "calico-birds" or "spotted cranes".

Cattle Egrets are white like the other two small white waders but their bills are yellow. During breeding season, bright buffy orange plumes develop on the crown, nape, lower neck and foreneck. Cattle Egrets arrived in the New World from the Old World around 1950 and became abundant in Louisiana in the 1960s.

Many Snowy and Cattle egrets and Little Blue Herons relocate to the Tropics in the fall and return to breed in the spring. Some may be found, however, in our region throughout the winter with numbers being greater near the coast than the interior.

In general, Cattle Egrets avoid water and feed around livestock and farm equipment. Snowy Egrets and Little Blue Herons concentrate on shallow water locations to feed. However, when there is flooding, all three species can be found feeding together in shallow water. And, it is not uncommon to find Little Blue Herons in pastures with Cattle Egrets feeding amongst cattle!

Jay V. Huner
Louisiana Ecrivisse