When walking along the path circling the UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) lagoon, it takes a stroke of luck to spot a big white bird wading through the shallow waters. Arguably one of the most recognizable species living on campus, you may be unable to help but stare at the sight.
The great egret is found all around the world. They are part of the heron family and are slightly smaller than their sister species, the great blue heron, another inhabitant of the lagoon. They are tall, standing at almost three feet with a wingspan of five feet on average. Their orange beaks and black legs are the only parts of their bodies not entirely covered in white feathers. The most defining feature of the great egret are their long, curved necks and their equally long legs, which they tuck into their bodies during flight.
The habitat of the great egret is greatly like the lagoon — areas of shallow salt or freshwater, such as marshes, lakes, or estuaries. They are most often spotted alone, for they are solitary birds. However, sometimes they are seen nesting in groups with their own pairs in the same area, usually in trees or shrubs near or above bodies of water. Such nesting colonies often choose trees that can be up to 90 feet above water. At UCSB, these birds breed and nest near the Goleta Slough mouth.
As for their diet, the great egret mainly eats fish, which are abundant in the lagoon, further establishing how suitable the habitat is for them. Their beaks, which are almost spear-like in shape, make it easy for them to catch fish in shallow waters. During hunts for food, they will stand still in the water, waiting for their prey to swim by, and will strike through them with their beaks at lightning speed. They also prey on insects and occasionally even small animals, such as rabbits and mice.
Today, the great egret is not in danger of extinction. However, in the past, they were actively hunted for their feathers, which sold for high prices, and faced near extermination. Since both males and females are identical in appearance, hunters did not discriminate between them, resulting in even worse tolls on their population.
Therefore, the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving bird species, campaigned for the protection of the great egret, as well as other bird species that were also impacted by the hunting, such as the snowy egret. Thanks to their efforts, in 1900 Congress passed the Lacey Act, which banned the transport of wild game between states, and in 1911 New York banned the sale of wild-caught birds. These protective measures were applied to the whole nation in 1918 with the Migratory Bird Act and put an end to the mass hunting of these birds.
It is fair to say that we became extremely lucky that a bird species with such distinguishing features and impactful history chose to become part of our campus’ natural habitat. Maybe one day, you will be one of the lucky ones to spot the great egret while walking along the path of the lagoon.