Family : Ardeidae
Text © Dr. Gianfranco Colombo
English translation by Mario Beltramini
In the Palearctic all know the little egret or at least the most attentive have by sure seen it while crossing the countries while it gets off with great elegance or rests undisturbed on the edge of ditches and roads.
In Europe during the last decades it was perhaps the only white egret present in our territory before the sudden arrival of the cattle egret and of the great white egret, this last quite unusual in the past.
It is not difficult to note its presence even if staying far, as is candid white colour stands out clearly in the green of the habitat where it lives, particularly in the open countryside, increasingly frequented habitat although being a species of aquatic environments, of swamps and of reedbeds.
The British, by sure the most experienced in the ornithological art and in the same time the least formalized in giving the common names to the birds in order to simplify their identification and to avoid confusions with other species, have simply baptized it “Little Egret”, distinguishing it from the “Great white Egret” (Ardea alba) and from the “Cattle Egret” (Bubulcus ibis).
However, as we shall see, it is not absolutely small so much to be confused by the non-experts with above mentioned great white egret of which repeats colour and behaviors. Only a direct comparison makes us understand immediately the different size of the two species.
The Little egret (Egretta garzetta Linnaeus, 1766) belongs to the order of the Pelecaniformes and to the family of the Ardeidae, very common birds and present in every part of the world.
This bird together with many others of its group, has been object of merciless hunt between the XIX and the XX centuries due to their wonderful fluffy feathers that were used by the millineries of that time to adorn dresses and hats of the stylish ladies. Moreover, the catch did occur mainly in the period of the matings when these feathers, so much particular and elegant, essential kit for the amorous parades and for the formation of the couples, adorned the liveries of this bird.
Not only this species but also the Great white egret (Ardea alba) was unconscious and involuntary victim of this frivolous attraction.
The chronicles of the time report that in the years of late XIX century, the only England commercialized more than 2 millions of egrets skins per year for the millinery, with serious harm to the populations of this bird, so that it became extinct in the United Kingdom and the European populations did suffer dramatic consequences.
As then happens, the fashion changed to other illusory initiatives and these birds immediately enjoyed the benefits, also after updated legislations that protected their fate.
The etymology of the scientific binomen of this species is maybe one of the very few that do not derive from the old Greek and not even from the Latin. In fact, both names have vulgar roots and report dialectal names came to us through centuries of oral tradition so far to loose the traces of the real source of the original name.
Egret from the Provençal “aigron” = heron in the endearing version aigrette, to distinguish it from the greater sized alike but most probably the origin is even Germanic “heigir” later become “aghirone” and then transcribed “airone” in Italy and “aigron” in France.
Same for garzetta that comes form the homonymous name given in the Lombardia countryside to this small heron, “sgarzetta” or “garzetta” seems to come in turn from the XIV century Spanish “garceta” that again seems to come from the Arabic “ḡarzah”, a pointed blunt instrument, perhaps like the bill of the little egret. But the Spanish from Asturia use the term “garceta” to indicate a lock of long hair covering the nape, taking us again and finally to the morphological reality of this bird.
Through these digressions, in any case always to be interpreted, we may understand how in the ancient times, periods that we consider often dark and hermetic, the various languages travelled and pierced every territorial barrier, without restriction of boundaries.
In Europe it is commonly called Little egret in English, Seidenreiher in German, Garceta común in Spanish, Aigrette garzette in French, Garzetta in Italian and Garça-branca-pequena in Portuguese.
The little egret is diffused in Europe, in Asia, in Africa and in Australia with various subspecies typical of the single territories occupied.
Three subspecies have been classified: Egretta garzetta nigripes, proper of the extreme south-eastern Asia including New Guinea, Egretta garzetta immaculata, of Australia but after many considered as belonging to the previous strain and the Egretta garzetta garzetta of Europe, Africa and the remaining part of Asia.
Previously were considered as subspecies also the Western reef egret (Egretta gularis) of Africa and Middle East and the Dimorphic egret (Egretta dimorpha) of eastern Africa and of the near island of the Indian Ocean. The Asian territory occupied by the little egret concerns only the tropical area south to the Himalayan chains, the southern part of China and the Indochinese peninsula.
Is historically absent in the Americas but during the last decades it has been noticed a gradual and progressive territorial conquest that seem to foreshadow a future and fast total occupation of the entire continent.
In Europe it is diffusely present, in particular in the central continental and Mediterranean areas, whilst leaves out the northernmost zones where the temperatures are more rigid. It is a migratory bird for what concerns the populations continental and occupying the northern limits of the range with movements towards south that may reach even sub-Saharan African quarters.
Conversely, the Mediterranean populations are sedentary and often merge during the winter with the migratory populations coming from the north, thus considerably increasing their density in the wintering territories.
The tropical populations are instead sedentary and are subject to short movements during the dry season when looking for suitable aquatic habitats.
Often, during the post reproductive period, the young are subject to wandering movements without any destination that may lead them even northwards till when the weather situation obliges them subsequently to rapid corrections and course reversals towards the right winter quarters.
The little egret lives on habitats linked to the presence of water and rarely frequents arid zones if not very close to water surfaces or swamps.
Ponds and swampy reedbeds, banks of water streams and country trickles, rice fields and flooded fields, any habitat having water, possibly clear and fresh, sees the constant presence of this species. It occasionally gathers in numerous flocks, particularly in the post reproductive periods or preceding or during the migration but the typical behaviour of the little egret, are the small groups of very few units, often individually that silently and stealthily walk slowly in the water looking for small preys.
Contrary to the Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) much more social bird that gathers usually in great number and with whom it lives, the little egret prefers the solitude and when casually close, keeps always a certain distance from them as if it wanted to distinguish its elegance from their clumsiness. Almost indistinguishable for the uniniated, these two species are now part of the rural panorama of the plains and marshes of Mediterranean Europe. It is an expanding species also in Europe with fruitful and constant thrusts towards the north of the traditional range.
The little egret is easily mistakable in Erope with the Great white egret (Ardea alba) and the Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) even if an experienced eye knows easily how to note the different characteristics.
The livery is completely white and candid in any season of the year, with black raven bill and legs, and fingers and feet of intense yellow colour tending to orange during the period of maximum reproductive vigour. The cheeks during the nuptial time become light bluish and the livery gets enriched with long dorsal feathers, fluffy and graceful, rightly called aigrettes and main object of the loot that the millinery of that time did plunder.
Accompanying this elegant livery are added some very elongated and filiform feathers hanging from the nape and that move at the least displacement of the head and just as many hanging from the neck like a gauzy and flowing apron. The iris is yellow pearl. There is no distinction between the sexes. The juveniles have a less candid colour albeit always white.
It distinguishes from the cattle egret firstly due to the elegance of the posture, having a much more slender silhouette with longer and leaner neck, and then for the very sharp bill that in the cattle egret is almost always yellowish. When flying both species keep the neck “S-shaped” close to the trunk, as typical to the ardeids but the little egret has longer wings and a less frequent flapping. The dimensions cannot by sure be compared to those of the cousin, the great egret, as these are practically double but they are still remarkable. It is about 60 cm long, with a wingspan of 90 cm and average weight of 400g.
In the other continents the little egret has very similar and difficult to distinguish conspecifics. Just to cite some, in North America it is almost indistinguishable from the Snowy egret (Egretta thula), in Africa it may be easily mistaken with the Yellow-billed egret (Egretta intermedia), in Middle East with the Western reef egret (Egretta gularis) when in its white phase and in Australia with the Eastern reef egret (Egretta sacra) when in the candid phase.
So it is isolated during the feeding activities, as it is social during the nidification period.
The little egret benefits of the mixed heronries for nidifying, sharing the common areas with all the other ardeids. The little egret itself is not scared by the presence of other specimens of the same species few metres away from its nest, even if, as usual, the respect distances between the nests are practically given by the sum of the length of the necks of the two neighbours added to the sharp bills, with which they exchange regularly pointy warning messages.
The utility and the efficacy of a common force for the defence of the colony against possible aggressors, makes forget all kinds of antagonism among the inhabitants of the same settlement.
The nest is a simple mass of small branches leaning one on the other to form a platform that is then furnished with softer and more comfortable material.
After a short but intense courting, during which the male exhibits petly all its fluffy plumage, enlivened by croakings and shrieks of quite poor musicality but exciting for the partner, the nest is occupied and are laid 4-6 light bluish eggs, brooded by both partners for three weeks.
The small nestlings come to life in different times therefore at times there is a considerable difference between the first and the last born, causing frequently the death of the last ones due to the upper hand of the older brothers. They keep in the nest for about 40 days but during the last phases they may go around toddling between the branches around the nest or even between the underlying brambles, when, impetuous and unrestrained, they fall, inadvertently, from the nest. These are the most delicate moments for the young that often are victim of the predators that, well aware of the availability of preys, wander frequently under these colonies.
Contrarily to many similars it has, the little egret has only diurnal habits. It nourishes of all aquatic species, from fishes to amphibians, from insects to larvae but does not disdain very small rodents, grass snakes and also nestlings of other species. It hunts with great astuteness and attention, moving slowly in midwater and waiting for the movement of the preys. It often uses to shake the leg under the level of the water in front so as to move small fishes or small frogs that than seizes with a firm and sure blow.
It has a more agitated movement than its consimilars and is often seen hopping with half-open wings, with rapid and crazy movements, with backward leaps or with short run forward following those preys that dart to avoid capture. It is a bird very plastic in its movements if compared to the thoroughness of the movements of the great egret or of the Grey heron (Ardea cinerea) its usual fellow adventurers.
Diffusely protected all over its range, the species is not endangered.
Ardea garzetta Linnaeus, 1766.