As described by its species name, the Great Egret is all white. It has black legs and feet and a yellow bill. During the breeding season, this egret has long white plumes that hang down from its back past the tail, and a patch of bluish green on its face near the bill. 99 cm (39 in) long; one of the largest birds among the herons and egrets.
The breeding season begins in late December and extends into July, with a peak from late March to late May. Nesting usually occurs in large colonies, with numbers of birds sometimes reaching in the thousands. The male and female build a nest of sticks from 2-12 m (8-40 feet) high in a tree or shrub. The male and female incubate the eggs for 23-26 days, after which the semialtricial young hatch. The young are cared for by the adults for 42-49 days, and leave the nest approximately three weeks after hatching.
The Great Egret frequents mostly freshwater ponds, lakes, marshes, and inlets. It hunts by stalking prey or waiting for prey to swim by as it stands in shallow water. Fish, aquatic invertebrates, and small vertebrates are included in its diet. Occasionally it will steal food from other herons, egrets, and ibises.
Within the United States, the Great Egret occurs throughout most of the East, with most sightings in the coastal areas, and also occurs in western coastal regions. In the southeastern third of Georgia, low numbers occur year-round.
Prior to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, this species was hunted for its plumes. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, feathers were used as decoration on hats and clothing, causing the near extinction of many species of herons and egrets. The Great Egret was chosen as the Audubon Society "poster bird" during the time when this organization was formed to help conserve this and many other species. Since the banning of DDT, a pesticide that had the unfortunate side effect of weakening bird shells, this species has had increased reproductive success. The Great Egret is now fairly common, and is not listed as requiring any special conservation attention in the Southeast.
The Great Egret is distinguished from other egret species by its large size and its black legs and feet. The white phase of the Great Blue Heron is similar in appearance, but it has yellow legs and is larger than the Great Egret.