Snowy Egret: The ‘Plume Bird’

Snowy Egret near the Sill dam; Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. November 14, 2021 ©williamwisephoto.com

The eBird frequency chart shows the Snowy Egret, Egretta thula, is a year-round inhabitant of the Okefenokee Swamp, but perhaps not as frequent as the other long-legged wading birds. Over the course of many paddling trips, I’ve only found them occasionally, and mostly along the Suwannee River Sill Recreation Area.

For the non-birder, the Snowy Egret looks pretty much like all the other white herons and egrets in the swamp. The astute observer might notice a difference in size, but how else are they distinguished? The most telling feature is the Snowy Egret’s golden slippers. The adults have long black legs that end in bright yellow feet. This distinguishes them from greenish legs of the Little Blue Herons (which are white as juveniles). The bill of the Snowy Egret is black, with yellow around the eyes, while the Little Blue Heron juvenile has a two-toned bill. The other common white wading bird in the Okefenokee is the Great Egret. It is unmistakably larger and taller than the delicate Snowy Egret.

In the 1800’s, in order to satisfy the fashion industry, the Snowy Egrets were hunted for the long white plumes on their heads. According to allaboutbirds.com, the much sought feathers were twice the price of gold at the time. “Plume-hunting for the fashion industry killed many Snowy Egrets and other birds until reforms were passed in the early twentieth century.”

This might explain why, upon his visit in 1917, Okefenokee naturalist Francis Harper failed to see any within the swamp. His report in The Auk stated, “SNOWY EGRET; ‘Egret.’- A plume-bird, called the ‘Egret,’ was found in the swamp twenty years ago.” He regrettably laments that the Snowy Egret, and some others, “did not come under our own notice.”​


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