Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE REDDISH EGRET.
ARDEA RUFESCENS, Gmel
PLATE CCCLXXI.--ADULT AND YOUNG.
While sailing towards the Florida Keys, my mind was agitated with
anticipations of the delight I should experience in exploring a region whose
productions were very imperfectly known. Often did I think of the Heron named
after TITIAN PEALE, by my learned friend the Prince of MUSIGNANO. Mr. PEALE
had procured only a single specimen, and in the winter season, but whether or
not the species was abundant on the Keys of Florida remained to be discovered.
No sooner had I been landed and formed an acquaintance with Mr. EGAN the pilot,
who was well acquainted with the haunts of many of the birds of those islands,
than I asked him respecting the various Herons which might be found there or on
the shores of the mainland. Before answering me, he counted his fingers slowly,
and then said that he could recollect only "twelve sorts;" "but," added he,
"these birds change their colours so curiously, that it is past wonder with me
to believe that any one man could know them without watching them as I have done
for many years." I then inquired if I was in good time to procure all the sorts
which he knew. He answered in the affirmative; but felt some doubt as to my
procuring the eggs of one kind at least, which breed earlier than the rest, and
was pure white from the shell, and the largest of all. Thinking the species to
which he alluded might be the Ardea alba of LINNAEUS I asked if it had long
thread-like feathers over the tail during the breeding season. "Oh no, Sir,"
said he, "it never has; it is as tall as yourself, and when you see some on the
wing, you will be pleased, for their wings are as large as those of the Brown
Pelican. The one I guess you mean, mostly goes farther to the eastward to
breed, along with a very small one, also always white, with the feathers over
the tail as you say, and curled upwards. These are the only three sorts that
are white." I begged him to describe the colours of the others, which he did so
well that I recognised ten species in all; but the large white one, and another
of a grey and purple colour, were unknown to me, and I told him so, stating at
the same time how anxious I was to procure them if possible. "If possible!
nothing in the world can be more easy, for if they have no eggs left, they have
young ones enough to load your schooner. I can take you straight to their
You may suppose, reader, how my spirits were raised by this intelligence,
and how surprised I was that PEALE's Egret was not in the number of the Florida
Herons. We speedily embarked in Mr. THRUSTON's boat, spread our sails to the
breeze, and passed several keys, on which we procured two young birds of the
large white species, which I saw at once was unknown to me. As we approached
the next island, I saw twenty or thirty pairs of Herons, some of which were pure
white, others of a light blue colour, but so much larger than the Blue Heron,
Ardea coerulea, that I asked the pilot what they were, when he answered, "the
very fellows I want to shew you, and you may soon see them close enough, as you
and I will shoot a few by way of amusement." Before half an hour had elapsed,
more than a dozen were lying at my feet. Some of them were as white as driven
snow, the rest of a delicate purplish tint, inclining to grey on the back and
wings, with heads and necks of a curious reddish colour. Males and females
there were, but they were all of one species, for my companion assured me that
"this sort bred before they turned to their natural colours," by which he meant
before attaining their full plumage at the age of three years. Well, the
immature birds were the very same as the individual to which, as the
representative of a new species, the name of Peale's Egret had been given. This
I saw at once, for so good is the representation of it in the fourth volume of
BONAPARTE's American Ornithology, that from the mere recollection of it I was
enabled to recognise the bird at once. You may imagine the pleasure I felt, as
well as that which I experienced on becoming better acquainted with this
species, which I found in many places both with eggs and with young.
The Reddish Egret is a constant resident on the Florida Keys, to which it
is so partial at all seasons that it never leaves them. Some individuals are
seen as far east as Cape Florida, and westward along the Gulf of Mexico.
Whether it may ever betake itself to fresh water I cannot say, but I never found
one in such a situation. It is a more plump bird for its size than most other
Herons, and in this respect resembles the Night Heron and the Yellow-crowned
species, but possesses all the gracefulness of the tribe to which it belongs.
In walking it lifts its feet high, and proceeds at a quiet pace, but sometimes
briskly; it alights with ease on trees, and walks well on the larger branches.
It rarely feeds from the edges of the water, but resorts to the shallows of the
extensive mud or sand flats, so numerous about the keys. There, twenty or
thirty, sometimes as many as a hundred, may be seen wading up to the heel (or
knee-joint as it is usually called) in pursuit of prey, or standing in silence
awaiting the approach of an animal on which it feeds, when it strikes it, and
immediately swallows it, if not too large; but if so, it carries it to the
shore, beats it, and tears it to pieces, rarely, however, using its feet for
that purpose, and certainly never employing its pectinated claws, which no Heron
that I know of ever uses for any other object than that of scratching its head,
or perhaps of securing its steps on rocky bottoms. These birds remain on the
flats thus employed, until the advance of the tide forces them to the land.
The flight of this Heron is more elevated and regular than that of the
smaller species. During the love season, it is peculiarly graceful and elegant,
especially when one unmated male is pursuing another, a female being in sight.
They pass through the air with celerity, turn and cut about in curious curves
and zigzags, the stronger bird frequently erecting its beautiful crest, and
uttering its note, at the moment when it expects to give its rival a thrust.
When these aerial combats take place between old and immature birds, their
different colours form a striking contrast, extremely pleasing to the beholder.
While travelling to and from their feeding grounds, or from one key to another,
they propel themselves by easy, well-sustained, and regular flappings of their
extended wings, the neck reposing on the shoulders, the legs stretched out
behind like a rudder, while their beautiful thready trains float in the breeze.
On approaching a landing place, they seldom fail to perform a few
circumvolutions, in order to see that all around is quiet, for they are more shy
and wary than the smaller Herons, and almost as suspicious as the two larger
species, Ardea occidentalis, and A. Herodias; and this becomes apparent as soon
as they discontinue the feeding of their young, when you find it extremely
difficult to approach them. After this period I rarely shot one, unless I
happened to come upon it unawares, or while it was passing over me when among
About the beginning of April, these Herons begin to pair. The males chase
each other on the ground, as well as in the air, and on returning to their
chosen females erect their crest and plumes, swell out their necks, pass and
repass before them, and emit hollow rough sounds, which it is impossible for me
to describe. It is curious to see a party of twenty or thirty on a sand-bar,
presenting as they do a mixture of colours from pure white to the full hues of
the old birds of either sex; and still more curious perhaps it is to see a
purple male paying his addresses to a white female, while at band a white male
is caressing a purple female, and not far off are a pair of white, and another
of purple birds. Nay, reader, until I had witnessed these remarkable
circumstances, I felt some distrust respecting the statement of the worthy
pilot. I am even now doubtful if all the young breed the first spring after
their birth, and am more inclined to think that they do not, on account of the
large flocks of white birds of this species which during the breeding time kept
apart from those that had nests, but which on examination were not found to be
barren birds, although they had the crests and pendent feathers less elongated
than those white individuals that were actually breeding.
By the middle of April, they construct their nests, which they place for
the most part on the south-western sides of the mangroves immediately bordering
the keys, never on the trees at a distance from the water, and rarely very close
together. Some are placed on the top branches, others a foot or two above the
highest tide-mark; many of them are annually repaired, perhaps all that stand
the winter gales. The nest, which is quite flat, is large for the size of the
bird, and is formed of dry sticks, interspersed with grass and leaves. The eggs
are three, average an inch and three quarters in length, one and three-eighths
in breadth, have an elliptical form, and a smooth shell, of a uniform rather
pale sea-green colour. They afford excellent eating. Both sexes incubate, but
I did not ascertain the time required for hatching.
The young while yet naked are of a dark colour, there being only a few
scanty tufts of long soft down on the head and other parts; but when the
feathers begin to sprout they become white. Being abundantly and carefully fed,
at first by regurgitation, they grow fast, and soon become noisy. When about a
month old, they are fed less frequently, and the fish is merely dropt before
them, or into their open throats; soon after they sit upright on the nest, with
their legs extended forward, or crawl about on the branches, as all other Herons
are wont to do. They are now sensible of danger, and when a boat is heard
coming towards them they hide among the branches, making towards the interior of
the keys, where it is extremely difficult to follow them. On one occasion, when
I was desirous of procuring some of them alive, to take to Charleston, it took
more than an hour to catch eight or nine of them, for they moved so fast and
stealthily through the mangroves, always making for the closest and most tangled
parts, that a man was obliged to keep his eyes constantly on a single
individual, which it was very difficult to do, on account of the number of birds
crossing each other in every direction. They do not fly until they are six or
seven weeks old, and even then do not venture beyond the island on which they
have been reared. In captivity, those which we had procured fed freely, and
soon became tolerably docile. They were supplied with pieces of green turtle
and other species of the tribe, and some of them reached Charleston in good
health. One continued alive for nearly two years with my friend the Rev. JOHN
BACHMAN. It was allowed to walk in the garden and poultry-yard, and ate an
enormous quantity of small fish and all sorts of garbage, contenting itself,
when better food was scarce, with the entrails of fowls, and even fed freely on
moistened corn-meal or mush. It caught insects with great dexterity, and was
very gentle and familiar, frequently going into the kitchen, where it was a
great favourite. It had acquired a crest and a few of the pendent feathers of
the back by the month of January, when about twenty-two months old. One cold
night, it was accidentally neglected, and in the morning was found dead, having
shared the fate of so many thousands of pet birds in all parts of the world. On
being opened, it was found to be a male. Although I have not been able to trace
the gradual changes of colour which this species undergoes, I have little doubt
that it will be found to attain maturity the third spring after birth.
The Reddish Egret rarely associates with others; nor does it suffer them to
nestle on the same island with itself. In this respect, it differs from all
other Herons with which I am acquainted; for although the Great White Heron, A.
occidentalis, has a decided antipathy to the Great Blue Heron, still it now and
then allows a few to breed on the north side of its island. The present species
is as strictly marine as the Great White Heron; and these are the only two that
are so, for all the others feed on fresh-water fishes, not less than on those
obtained in salt-water, as well as on other food of various kinds. Like all
others, the Reddish Egret loses its ornaments soon after incubation, when old
and young mix, and follow their occupations together. When wounded, it strikes
with its bill, scratches with its claws, and, throwing itself on its back, emits
its rough and harsh notes, keeping all the while its crest erected and expanded,
and its feathers swelled out. Its principal food consists of fishes of various
sizes, of which it consumes a great number, and of which it finds no difficulty
in procuring a sufficiency, as all the waters of those portions of the Floridas
that are inhabited by it are very profusely stocked. I was told that, although
still plentiful in the Floridas, this species was much more so when the keys
were first settled. I was present when a person killed twenty-eight in
succession in about an hour, the poor birds hovering above their island in
dismay, and unaware of the destructive power of their enemy.
The remarkable circumstance of this bird's changing from white to purple,
will no doubt have some tendency to disconcert the systematists, who, it seems,
pronounce all the birds which they name Egrets to be always white; but how much
more disconcerted must they be when they see that among the Herons peculiarly so
named, which they say are always coloured, the largest known to exist in the
United States is pure white. It is not at present my intention to say what an
Egret is, or what a Heron is; but it can no longer be denied that the presence
or absence of a loose crest, floating plume, and a white colour, are
insufficient for establishing essential characters separating Egrets from
Herons, which in fact display the most intimate connection, the one group
running into the other in an almost imperceptible gradation. Hoping that an
account of the extent of the migrations of the species of Heron that occur in
the United States, and whose habits I have studied for many years under the most
favourable circumstances, may prove acceptable, I now lay one before you,
arranging the species according to size, without regard to the rank they hold in
1. The Great White Heron. Ardea occidentalis. A constant resident on the
southern keys of Florida; entirely maritime; never goes farther eastward than
Cape Florida, though in winter the younger birds migrate southward, and perhaps
pass beyond the extremities of the Gulf of Mexico.
2. The Great Blue Heron. Ardea Herodias. A constant resident in the
Floridas; migrates throughout the Union, and as far along the Atlantic coast as
the southernmost islands of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in summer; breeds in all
the districts, and at the approach of winter returns to the Southern States.
3. The White Heron. Ardea Egretta. Resident in the Floridas; migrates to
the eastward sometimes as far as Massachusetts, and up the Mississippi as far as
the city of Natchez; never seen far inland.
4. The Reddish Egret. Ardea rufescens. Resident on the Florida Keys;
entirely maritime; never seen farther eastward than Cape Florida; the young
sometimes remove southward in winter.
5. The American Bittern. Ardea lentiginosa. A winter resident in the
Floridas; many migrate over the greater part of the Union and beyond its
northern limits; never seen in Kentucky; return before winter to the Southern
6. The Night Heron. Ardea Nycticorax. Resident in the Floridas; migrates
eastward as far as Maine, up the Mississippi as high as Memphis; none seen in
Kentucky; returns to the Southern States at the approach of winter, and occurs
at the distance of a hundred miles inland.
7. The Yellow-crowned Heron. Ardea violacea. A few spend the winter in
the Floridas; it rarely migrates farther eastward than New Jersey; proceeds up
the Mississippi to Natchez; never goes far inland; the greatest number winter
beyond the southern limits of the United States.
8. The Blue Heron. Ardea coerulea. Resident in the Floridas; migrates
eastward as far as Long Island; proceeds up the Mississippi about a hundred
miles above Natchez; never goes far inland.
9. The Louisiana Heron. Ardea Ludoviciana. Resident in the Floridas;
rarely seen as far east as New Jersey; seldom passes Natchez on the Mississippi;
never goes far inland.
10. The White Egret. Ardea candidissima. Resident in the Floridas;
migrates eastward as far as New York, up the Mississippi as far as Memphis;
never goes far inland; returns to the Southern States as soon as the young are
able to travel.
11. The Green Heron. Ardea virescens. Resident in the Floridas;
disperses over the Union; goes far inland; the greater number return at the
approach of winter to the Southern States.
12. The Least Bittern. Ardea exiles. Resident in the Floridas; migrates
as far as Maine, and throughout the Western Country, far up the Missouri;
returns early in autumn to the Southern States.
You will see from the above statement, that the Herons are almost similar
to our Pigeons in respect to the extent of their migrations, which must appear
the more remarkable on account of their comparative size, Ardea Herodias and A.
virescens corresponding in a great degree to the Columba migratoria and C.
ARDEA RUFESCENS, Gmel. Syst. Nat., vol. i. p. 628.
PEALE'S EGRET HERON, Ardea Pealii, Bonap. Amer. Orn., vol. iv. p. 96.
PEALE'S EGRET, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 49. Young.
REDDISH EGRET, Ardea rufescens, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iii. p. 411;vol. v. p. 604.
Male, 31, 46.
Resident on the Florida Keys, and in Galveston Bay. Never seen inland.
Bill much longer than the head, straight, compressed, tapering, the
mandibles nearly equal in size. Upper mandible with the dorsal line nearly
straight, the ridge broad and convex at the base, afterwards very narrow, a
groove from the base to near the end, beneath which the sides are convex, the
edges thin and sharp, with a notch on each side close to the narrow but obtuse
tip. Nostrils basal, linear, longitudinal. Lower mandible with the angle long
and extremely narrow, the dorsal line beyond it ascending and very slightly
convex, the edges sharp and slightly inflected, the tip very narrow but obtuse.
Head rather small, oblong, compressed. Neck very long and slender. Body
slender and compressed. Feet very long; tibia elongated and slender, its lower
half bare, covered all round with angular scales; tarsus elongated, slender,
compressed, covered anteriorly with numerous large scutella, laterally and
behind with angular scales. Toes of moderate length, rather slender, scutella
above, reticularly granulate beneath; third toe considerably longer than the
fourth, which is in nearly the same proportion longer than the second, the first
much shorter, but strong; claws rather small, strong, arched, compressed,
obtuse, that of hind toe much larger, the inner edge of that of the third
Space between the bill and eye, and around the latter, bare, as is the
lower half of the tibia. Plumage soft, generally loose. Feathers of the upper
and hind part of the head, and of the neck generally, especially on the sides
and at the lower part anteriorly, much elongated, very narrow, loose, with
linear compact extremities. The feathers of the back are similar but broader at
their base, and those from the middle of the back are so elongated as to extend
several inches beyond the tail, forming a train of which the filaments are
hair-like and rather stiff. Wings of moderate length; primaries broad,
tapering, the inner broadly rounded, with an acumen, as are the very broad
secondaries; first quill longest, second almost equal, third and fourth slightly
shorter, the rest of the primaries rapidly graduated; the inner secondaries
extend to nearly an inch of the tip of the wing, when the latter is closed.
Tail very short, slightly rounded, of twelve rather weak rounded feathers.
Bill black on its terminal third, the rest and the bare space on the head
pale flesh-colour. Iris white. Leggs and feet ultramarine blue, the scutella
bluish-black, as are the claws. Feathers of the head and neck light
reddish-brown, tinged with lilac, the tips fading to brownish-white. Back and
wings dull greyish-blue; the long feathers of the train yellowish towards the
tips; all the lower parts are greyish-blue paler than that of the upper.
Length to end of tail 31 inches, to end of wings 32; to end of claws 40;
extent of wings 46; wing from flexure 14 1/2; tail 4 1/2; bill along the back 4,
along the edge of lower mandible 4 11/12, depth at the base 1; bare part of
tibia 4 1/12; tarsus 6; middle toe 3, its claw (6 1/2)/12. Weight 1 3/4 lbs.
The Female is precisely similar to the male in colour, but is rather
Young nearly two years old.
The bill is coloured as in the adult, as is the iris, but the feet are dark
olive-green, the soles greenish-yellow. The plumage presents the same form as
in the adult, but is entirely pure white.
In this state the bird has been described as a distinct species under the
name of Peale's Egret Heron, but must now be restored to its proper species, the
adult having been described and figured by BUFFON under the name of Aigrette
rousse, and named by LATHAM the Reddish Egret.
This species may be distinguished at the first glance from all others that
occur in the United States, by the peculiar form of the feathers of the head and
neck, which are loose, pendent, and fringe-like, at all seasons, excepting in
the young bird before the first moult.
The number of young, as in all other species, much exceeds that of adult or
coloured birds; and I have procured them in the proportion of three to one. I
carried upwards of fifty specimens of this Heron to Charleston, where, as well
as in Philadelphia, New York, and London, I presented some to my friends and to
public institutions. I also sent several to my friend P. J. SELBY, Esq. of
Twizel, Northumberland, and lately gave a pair to the Museum of the University
of Edinburgh. Several specimens, which I presented to His Royal Highness the
Duke of SUSSEX, have been by him given to the British Museum.
In this species a long series of elongated feathers commences at the lower
fourth of the neck, on each side above, the intervening space being bare for the
breadth of 1/2 inch; they pass directly down along the back, terminating on the
scapulae, at the distance of 1/2 inch from its extremity, gradually becoming
more elongated, the first being 1 inch 8 twelfths in length, the last 14 inches.
These feathers occupy a ridge 1/4 inch in breadth at its lower part, and ought
more peculiarly to be named scapulars, for the feathers so called, which are
also elongated and tapering, run across the head of the humerus, close to its
articulation. These series are terminated by four large and broad feathers of
the ordinary texture. The elongated feathers on the fore part of the neck also
form two similar series on each side.
The mouth is as in the preceding species, its width 10 twelfths; the lower
mandible dilatable to 1 inch 5 twelfths; the tongue very small, 1 inch 7
twelfths in length, tapering to a fine point, but flattened, and very thin.
OEsophagus 18 inches long, 2 inches wide at the commencement, 1 1/4 at the
distance of 3 inches, after that uniformly 1 inch; on entering the thorax it
enlarges to 1 inch 3 twelfths; and between it and the stomach is a contraction,
the breadth of which is 9 twelfths. The stomach is very small, of an irregular
roundish form, 1 inch in diameter, compressed; its tendons 8 twelfths in
breadth; the pyloric lobe 9 twelfths in length, 7 twelfths in width, being much
more elongated than in the other species. The proventricular glands are very
small, and form a complete belt 1 1/4 inches in breadth. The inner surface of
the stomach is soft and irregularly rugous, as in the other species; that of the
pyloric lobe quite smooth. Right lobe of the liver 2 inches 2 twelfths in
length, left 2 inches; gall-bladder oblong, 1 1/4 inches long, and 5 twelfths in
breadth. Intestine 6 feet long, forming 26 folds; duodenum 2 1/4 twelfths wide;
the smallest diameter 1 twelfth; rectum 4 1/2 inches long; its width 3 twelfths;
cloaca globular, 1 1/2 inches in diameter; coecum 2 twelfths long, and of the
Trachea 13 inches long, its breadth uniformly 3 twelfths. It is
considerably flattened, which is not the case with the other species. The rings
180, and 4 dimidiate. Bronchial half rings 20 and 18. The muscles as in the