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Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens)

The Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) has the most limited range, and smallest population, of any North American species of heron. It was nearly exterminated by the feather trade, when huge numbers of egrets were killed for the feathers that gave them their name, the aigrettes, which are the long plumes of the head and lower back that occur in the breeding season, as well as for other colourful plumes and feathers, all used by the millenary trade for fashionable hats and accessories. It is found in the extreme southern U.S., especially the Gulf region, down into Mexico and Central America, and through parts of the Caribbean and in in parts of the west coast from extreme southern California, southward, with some birds migrating to other tropical and subtropical regions.

Most Reddish Egrets live up to their names with reddish heads and necks but a variable percentage of birds are in the white morph, and I have shown one of each. They are famous for their antics, prancing around in exaggerated “dance” steps, and usually in bright sunlight out on open mudflats or shallows amid mangroves and other vegetation. It’s thought the erratically unpredictable appearance of the bird’s shadow may scare prey into the open and perhaps the spread wings provide shade that makes their underwater prey easier to see. My white morph bird’s pose does not really capture the essence of these moves, which I have seen often, and really do make me think of someone trying to execute intricate dance steps while under the influence.

The immatures are a drab, warm gray color, and a few years ago I did a small, acrylic painting of an immature bird that was molting into the adult plumage, also attached, plus a very old pen and ink drawing from a sketch I made in the field in the Florida Keys, many years ago. I really like Reddish Egrets!

The painting of the immature bird illustrated an actual Reddish Egret that, amazingly, was discovered here in Ontario, and remained long enough that photographs taken of it show it’s transgression from immature to near adult plumage, a dark morph bird. They are, among herons, medium-sized, weighing in somewhere between about 365 and 870 grams, or from under a pound to nearly two pounds in weight. Birds on the west coast are put in a different subspecies, E. r. dickey, although virtually identical to the eastern birds.

It usually takes three or four years for Reddish Egrets to reach sexual maturity. Their breeding displays are extremely noisy, active, and sometimes aerial, and involve display of their magnificent plumes. Both parents engage in nest-building and usually two to four eggs are laid. Most birds are dark morph but there is some indication that the percentage of white birds is increasing (around 1 or 2 in ten, in Texas). They eat small aquatic organisms, and regurgitate the indigestible parts. My newest Reddish Egret painting is about 24 by 36 inches, and approximately life-size, in oils, on compressed hardboard.

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

Studio: (905) 472 9731

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