Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
GREAT AMERICAN WHITE EGRET.
ARDEA EGRETTA, Gmel.
The truly elegant Heron which now comes to be described, is a constant
resident in the Floridas; it migrates eastward sometimes as far as the State of
Massachusetts, and up the Mississippi to the city of Natchez, and is never seen
far inland, by which I mean that its rambles into the interior seldom extend to
more than fifty miles from the sea-shore, unless along the course of our great
rivers. On my way to Texas, in the spring of 1837, I found these birds in
several places along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and on several of the
islands scattered around that named Galveston, where, as well as in the
Floridas, I was told that they spend the winter.
The Great American Egret breeds along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, and
our Atlantic States, from Galveston Island in Texas to the borders of the State
of New York, beyond which, although stragglers have been seen, none, in so far
as I can ascertain, have been known to breed. In all low districts that are
marshy and covered with large trees, on the margins of ponds or lakes, the sides
of bayous, or gloomy swamps covered with water, are the places to which it
generally resorts during the period of reproduction; although I have in a few
instances met with their hests on low trees, and on sandy islands at a short
distance from the mainland. As early as December I have observed vast numbers
congregated, as if for the purpose of making choice of partners, when the
addresses of the males were paid in a very curious and to me interesting manner.
Near the plantation Of JOHN BULOW, Esq. in East Florida, I had the pleasure of
witnessing this sort of tournament or dress-ball from a place of concealment not
more than a hundred yards distant. The males, in strutting round the females,
swelled their throats, as Cormorants do at times, emitted gurgling sounds, and
raising their long plumes almost erect, paced majestically before the fair ones
of their choice. Although these snowy beaux were a good deal irritated by
jealousy, and conflicts now and then took place, the whole time I remained, much
less fighting was exhibited than I had expected from what I had already seen in
the case of the Great Blue Heron, Ardea Herodias. These meetings took place
about ten o'clock in the morning, or after they had all enjoyed a good
breakfast, and continued until nearly three in the afternoon, when, separating
into flocks of eight or ten individuals, they flew off to search for food.
These manoeuvres were continued nearly a week, and I could with ease, from a
considerable distance, mark the spot, which was a clear sand-bar, by the descent
of the separate small flocks previous to their alighting there.
The flight of this species is in strength intermediate between that of
Ardea Herodias and A. rufescens, and is well sustained. On foot its movements
are as graceful as those of the Louisiana Heron, its steps measured, its long
neck gracefully retracted and curved, and its silky train reminded one of the
flowing robes of the noble ladies of Europe. The train of this Egret, like that
of other species, makes its appearance a few weeks previous to the love season,
continues to grow and increase in beauty, until incubation has commenced, after
which period it deteriorates, and at length disappears about the time when the
young birds leave the nest, when, were it not for the difference in size, it
would be difficult to distinguish them from their parents. Should you, however,
closely examine the upper plumage of an old bird of either sex, for both possess
the train, you will discover that its feathers still exist, although shortened
and deprived of most of their filaments. Similar feathers are seen in all other
Herons that have a largely developed train in the breeding season. Even the few
plumes hanging from the hind part of the Ardea Herodias, A. Nycticorax, and A.
violacea, are subject to the same rule; and it is curious to see these ornaments
becoming more or less apparent, according to the latitude in which these birds
breed, their growth being completed in the southern part of Florida two months
sooner than in our Middle Districts.
The American Egrets leave the Floridas almost simultaneously about the 1st
of March, and soon afterwards reach Georgia and South Carolina, but rarely the
State of New Jersey, before the middle of May. In these parts the young are
able to fly by the 1st of August. On the Mule Keys off the coast of Florida, I
have found the young well grown by the 8th of May; but in South Carolina they
are rarely hatched until toward the end of that month or the beginning of June.
In these more southern parts two broods are often raised in a season, but in the
Jerseys there is, I believe, never more than one. While travelling, early in
spring, between Savannah in Georgia and Charleston in South Carolina, I saw many
of these Egrets on the large rice plantations, and felt some surprise at finding
them much wilder at that period of their migrations than after they have settled
in some locality for the purpose of breeding. I have supposed this to be caused
by the change of their thoughts on such occasions, and am of opinion that birds
of all kinds become more careless of themselves. As the strength of their
attachment toward their mates or progeny increases through the process of time,
as is the case with the better part of our own species, lovers and parents
performing acts of heroism, which individuals having no such attachment to each
other would never dare to contemplate. In these birds the impulse of affection
is so great, that when they have young they allow themselves to be approached,
so as often to fall victims to the rapacity of man, who, boasting of reason and
benevolence, ought at such a time to respect their devotion.
The American Egrets are much attached to their roosting places, to which
they remove from their feeding grounds regularly about an hour before the last
glimpse of day; and I cannot help expressing my disbelief in the vulgar notion
of birds of this family usually feeding by night, as I have never observed them
so doing even in countries where they were most abundant. Before sunset the
Egrets and other Herons (excepting perhaps the Bitterns and Night Herons) leave
their feeding grounds in small flocks, often composed of only a single family,
and proceed on wing in the most direct course, at a moderate height, to some
secure retreat more or less distant, according to the danger they may have to
guard against. Flock after flock may be seen repairing from all quarters to
these places of repose, which one may readily discover by observing their
Approach and watch them. Some hundreds have reached the well-known
rendezvous. After a few gratulations you see them lower their bodies on the
stems of the trees or bushes on which they have alighted, fold their necks,
place their heads beneath the scapular feathers, and adjust themselves for
repose. Daylight returns, and they are all in motion. The arrangement of their
attire is not more neglected by them than by the most fashionable fops, but they
spend less time at the toilet. Their rough notes are uttered more loudly than
in the evening, and after a very short lapse of time they spread their snowy
pinions, and move in different directions, to search for fiddlers, fish, insects
of all sorts, small quadrupeds or birds, snails, and reptiles, all of which form
the food of this species.
The nest of the Great White Egret, whether placed in a cypress one hundred
and thirty feet high, or on a mangrove not six feet above the water, whether in
one of those dismal swamps swarming with loathsome reptiles, or by the margin of
the clear blue waters that bathe the Keys of Florida, is large, flat, and
composed of sticks, often so loosely put together as to make you wonder how it
can bold, besides itself, the three young ones which this species and all the
larger Herons have at a brood. In a few instances only have I found it
compactly built, it being the first nest formed by its owners. It almost always
overhangs the water, and is resorted to and repaired year after year by the same
pair. The eggs, which are never more than three, measure two inches and a
quarter in length, an inch and five-eighths in breadth, and when newly laid are
smooth, and of a pale blue colour, but afterwards become roughish and faded.
When the nest is placed on a tall tree, the young remain in it, or on its
borders, until they are able to fly; but when on a low tree or bush, they leave
it much sooner, being capable of moving along the branches without fear of being
injured by falling, and knowing that should they slip into the water they can
easily extricate themselves by striking with their legs until they reach either
the shore or the nearest bush, by clinging to the stem of which they soon ascend
to the top.
This Egret is shy and vigilant at all times, seldom allowing a person to
come near unless during the breeding season. If in a rice-field of some extent,
and at some distance from its margins, where cover can be obtained, you need not
attempt to approach it; but if you are intent on procuring it, make for some
tree, and desire your friend to start the bird. If you are well concealed, you
may almost depend on obtaining one in a few minutes, for the Egrets will perhaps
alight within twenty yards or less of you. Once, when I was very desirous of
making a new drawing of this bird, my friend JOHN BACHMAN followed this method,
and between us we carried home several superb specimens.
The long plumes of this bird being in request for ornamental purposes, they
are shot in great numbers while sitting on their eggs, or soon after the
appearance of the young. I know a person who, on offering a double-barrelled
gun to a gentleman near Charleston, for one hundred White Herons fresh killed,
received that number and more the next day.
The Great Egret breeds in company with the Anhinga, the Great Blue Heron,
and other birds of this family. The Turkey Buzzards and the Crows commit
dreadful havoc among its young, as well as those of the other Species. My
friend JOHN BACHMAN gives me the following account of his visit to one of its
breeding places, at the "Round O," a plantation about forty miles from
Charleston: "Our company was composed of BENJAMIN LOGAN, S. LEE, and Dr.
MARTIN. We were desirous of obtaining some of the Herons as specimens for
stuffing, and the ladies were anxious to procure many of their primary feathers
for the purpose of making fans. The trees were high, from a hundred to a
hundred and thirty feet, and our shot was not of the right size; but we
commenced firing at the birds, and soon discovered that we had a prospect of
success. Each man took his tree, and loaded and fired as fast as he could.
Many of the birds lodged on the highest branches of the cypresses, others fell
into the nest, and, in most cases, when shot from a limb, where they had been
sitting, they clung to it for some time before they would let go. One thing
surprised me: it was the length of time it took for a bird to fall from the
place where it was shot, and it fell with a loud noise into the water. Many
wounded birds fell some distance off, and we could not conveniently follow them
on account of the heavy wading through the place. We brought home with us
forty-six of the large White Herons, and three of the Great Blue. Many more
might have been killed, but we became tired of shooting them."
ARDEA EGRETTA, Gmel. Syst. Nat., vol. i. p. 629.
GREAT WHITE HERON, Ardea Egretta, Wits. Amer. Orn., vol. vii. p. 106.
ARDEA ALBA, Bonap. Syn., p. 304.
ARDEA EGRETTA, Wagler, Syst. Av.
GREAT WHITE HERON, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 47.
GREAT AMERICAN EGRET, Ardea Egretta, Aud. Orn. Biog.,
vol. iv. p. 600.
Male, 37, 57.
Resident in Florida, and Galveston Bay in Texas. Migrates in spring
sometimes as fat as Massachusetts; up the Mississippi to Natchez. Breeds in all
intermediate districts. Returns south before winter. Very abundant.
Adult Male in summer.
Bill much longer than the head, straight, compressed, tapering to a point,
the mandibles nearly equal. Upper mandible with the dorsal line nearly
straight, the ridge broad and slightly convex at the base, narrowed and becoming
rather acute towards the end, a groove from the base to two-thirds of the
length, beneath which the sides are convex, the edges thin and sharp, with a
notch close to the acute tip. Nostrils basal, linear, longitudinal, with a
membrane above and behind. Lower mandible with the angle extremely narrow and
elongated, the dorsal line beyond it ascending and almost straight, the edges
sharp and direct, the tip acuminate.
Head small, oblong, compressed. Neck very long and slender. Body slender
and compressed. Feet very long, tibia elongated, its lower half bare, slender,
covered anteriorly and laterally with hexagonal scales, posteriorly with
scutella; tarsus elongated, compressed, covered anteriorly with numerous
scutella, some of which are divided laterally and posteriorly with angular
scales. Toes of moderate length, rather slender, scutellate above, granulate
beneath; third toe considerably longer than the fourth, which exceeds the
second; the first large; the claws of moderate length, rather strong, arched,
compressed, rather acute, that of the hind toe much larger, the inner edge of
that of the third regularly pectinated.
Space between the bill and eye, and around the latter, bare. Plumage soft,
blended; the feathers oblong, with their filaments generally disunited, unless
on the wings and tail. There is no crest on the head, but the feathers on its
upper and hind part are slightly elongated; those on the lower part of the neck
anteriorly are elongated; and from between the scapulas arises a tuft of
extremely long, slightly decurved feathers, which extend about ten inches beyond
the end of the tail, and have the shaft slightly undulated, the filaments long
and distant. The wing is of moderate length; the primaries tapering but
rounded, the second and third longest, the first slightly shorter than the
fourth; the secondaries broad and rounded, some of the inner as long as the
longest primaries, when the wing is closed. Tail very short, small, slightly
rounded, of twelve rather weak feathers.
Bill bright yellow, as is the bare space between it and the eye; iris pale
yellow; feet and claws black. The plumage is pure white.
Length to end of tail 37 inches, to end of claws 49, to end of wings
57 1/4, to carpus 23 1/2, to end of dorsal plumes 57; bill along the ridge
4 7/12 the edge of lower mandible 5 5/12; wing from flexure 16 1/2; tail 6 1/4;
extent of wings 55; bare part of tibia 3 1/2; tarsus 6 1/12; hind toe 1 1/2, its
claw 1 2/12; second toe 2 8/12, its claw 7/12; third toe 3 11/12, its claw 9/12;
fourth toe 3 2/12, its claw (7 1/2)/12. Weight 2 1/4 lbs.
The Female is similar to the male, but somewhat smaller.
The roof of the mouth is slightly concave, with a median and two lateral
longitudinal ridges, the palate convex, the posterior aperture of the nares
linear, without an adterior slit. The mouth is rather narrow, measuring only 8
twelfths across, but is dilatable to 1 1/2 inches, the branches of the lower
mandible being very elastic. The aperture of the car is very small, being 2
twelfths in diameter, and roundish. The oesophagus is 2 feet 2 inches long, 1
inch and 4 twelfths in diameter, extremely thin, the longitudinal fibres within
the transverse, the inner coat raised into numerous longitudinal ridges. The
oesophagus continues of uniform diameter, and passes as it were directly into
the stomach, there being no enlargement at its termination indicative of the
proventriculus, which however exists, but in a modified form, there being at the
termination of the gullet eight longitudinal series of large mucous crypts,
about half an inch long, and immediately afterwards a continuous belt, 1 1/2
inches in breadth, of small cylindrical mucous crypts with minute apertures.
Beyond this the stomach forms a hemispherical sac 1 1/2 inches in diameter, of a
membranous structure, having externally beneath the cellular coat a layer of
slender muscular fibres, convex towards two roundish tendons, and internally a
soft, thin, smooth lining, perforated by innumerable minute apertures of
glandules. The intestine is very long and extremely slender, measuring 6 feet 7
inches in length, its average diameter 2 twelfths. The rectum, [b d f], is 3
inches long; the cloaca, [d e f], globular, 1 1/2 inches in diameter; the
coecum, [c], single, as in the other Herons, 3 twelfths long, and nearly 2
twelfths in diameter.
The trachea is 1 foot 9 1/4 inches long, of nearly uniform diameter,
flattened a little for about half its length, its greatest breadth 3 1/2
twelfths; the rings 285, the last four rings divided and arched. The contractor
muscles are extremely thin, the sterno-tracheal moderate, and coming off at the
distance of 1 inch from the lower extremity, from which place also there
proceeds to the two last rings a pair of slender inferior laryngeal muscles.
The bronchi are very short, of about two half rings.
The animal represented on the plate is the Tapayaxin of HERNANDEZ,
Phrynosoma orbicularis of WIEGMANN, Tapaya orbicularis of CUVIER.
The specimen from which it was drawn was entrusted to my care by my friend
RICHARD HARLAN, M.D., to whom it was presented by Mr. NUTTALL, who found it
in California. A notice respecting this species by Dr. HARLAN will be found
in the American Journal of Science and Arts, vol. xxxi.