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Dances with Egrets

This reddish egret has a unique method of fishing

Updated September 29, 2020
Reddish Egret Color Guide

“What shall we do with a drunken sailor?” That’s from an old sea shanty, probably dating back to the early 1700s, but it’s what I think of when I see a reddish egret (Egretta rufescens) dancing for its dinner. 

Don’t let the name fool you. Most reddish egrets have cinnamon-colored feathers on their head and neck and a slate-gray body, but they also come in a striking white-feathered version. Both morphs have pink bills with black tips and legs that are sky blue on the back and sides and jet black on the front.

Like other herons and egrets, a reddish egret can stand eerily still, but those peaceful moments never last. Without warning it dashes off, lifting each foot out of the water as it runs through the shallows. Just as suddenly it stops, turns 180 degrees, and sprints back the way it came, jumping, flicking its wings, and bouncing over the water with each step. It arches its wings like a beach umbrella and peers an inch or two under the surface. It scrapes and shakes its feet across the bottom, then it’s off again, this time running with the snake-like neck twisted to the side so that the head is even with, but a little to the side of the body. It peers down with one eye and up with the other. Other herons are stately birds, but this one acts like the court jester.

The antics look silly, but every scrape of the foot, flick of the wing, dash, hop, and bounce is meant to make fish dart away in terror. Then, as fast as a sewing machine needle, the egret plucks tiny, home-aquarium-size fish out of the water. Each fish weighs about a gram (0.03 ounces) so it takes a lot to make a meal, but the egrets leave the big fish to their larger cousins and prefer to fill themselves on the hor d’oeuvres.

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