Great Egret Identification Tips

Great Egret Identification Tips

Some reference books state that the most common member of the heron family is the black-crowned night heron. In fact, this distinction belongs properly to the Great Egret, which has a wide breeding range on every continent except Antarctica.

By the late 1800s, great egrets and other wading birds were under serious threat from “antler hunters” who killed them so their feathers could be used in fashion. Citizens of the United States rallied to save these birds, which led to the formation of the first Audubon Societies and legislation that would protect all migrating birds. Populations of most of the species involved have been able to rebound and Great Egrets are likely as numerous as ever. In North America, they are widespread in the lower 48 states and locally in southeastern Canada. Even where they are rare, such as in the northern region of the Rockies, strays can appear at any time during the warmer months.

Six species of egrets and herons that occur regularly in North America can have all-white feathers. Field markings involving plumage pattern are important in identifying most birds, but they are useless for these monochromatic relatives; instead, we must rely on the shapes of each species and the colors of their featherless parts.

With practice, shapes can be the most useful terrain markers, but the differences are hard to see until you have comparative experience. So the colors of the beak, the bare skin of the face, the legs and the feet are the best starting point.

The Great Egret in North and South America can be simply described as having black legs and a yellow beak. In adults, the legs turn a slightly glossier black during courtship season, but this is rarely noticeable. Other changes are more obvious: the beak changes from pale yellow to orange-yellow, with blackish along the upper ridge, and the bare skin between the beak and the eye changes from dull yellow to bright lime green. In eastern hemisphere populations, the beak turns black early in the breeding season, which can be confusing to birdwatchers.

The yellow beak and black legs will rule out most similar species, but young, non-breeding cattle egrets exhibit the same combination. (In fact, the first Cattle Egret ever found in Canada – on a ship off Newfoundland in 1952 – was first identified as a Great Egret because of these colors.) That’s where the importance of form becomes apparent. The Cattle Egret is stocky, short-legged, thick-necked and very short-billed compared to most members of its family, and with practice looks quite distinctive.


The shape is also very useful in separating great egrets from other white egrets, especially at a distance. The most similar bird is probably the “Great White Heron”, which is currently classified as a Florida subspecies of the Great Blue Heron, but may be treated as a full species in the future. It’s shaped like a large puffy bruise, but to be sure of the identity, check the legs: pale, not black.

What to look for

Size. The second largest species of heron in North America. Of the white species, only the localized Florida Great White Heron (a subspecies of the Great Blue Heron) is larger.
Form. The extra long neck and legs contribute to a sculptural appearance.
Plumage. All white feathers at all ages and all seasons. During winter and spring, adults develop long, wispy plumes on the upperparts but not on the head.
Bill. The long bill is pale yellow for most of the year, becoming more orange-yellow with dark upper crest during the breeding season.
Legs. Long legs, extending well beyond the tip of the tail in flight. Black feet and legs.

Great Egret, adult.  April in Galveston County, Texas.  Photo by Brian E. SmallGreat Egret, adult. April in Galveston County, Texas. Photo by Brian E. Small

Large and elegant, the great egret is a classic sight in the shallow waters of much of North America and around the world. Its yellow beak and black legs make good field markers up close, but with experience it can be identified from a distance by its shape alone. Studying the shapes of birds at every opportunity is a good way to improve identification skills. On this bird, notice the long, wispy courtship plumes, extending from the upperparts well past the tip of the tail. Most adults exhibit them from winter to spring, although they abrade and wear down fairly quickly. Unlike some other egrets, great egrets do not have plumes or elongated feathers on their heads.

Cattle Egret by Brian E. SmallCattle egret, adult. November in Hidalgo County, Texas. Photo by Brian E. Small

At the height of the breeding season, cattle egrets have patches of rich buff to their plumage, their legs are pale pink, and the beak changes from yellow to reddish, so they look quite ornate in all. This November bird still shows traces of buff, but many in winter have completely white feathers, black legs and yellow bills, suggesting the field markings of the great egret. The shape differences provide some of the best distinctions. The Cattle Egret’s beak is extremely short, so that the feathers on its underside appear to extend more than half its length. Its legs and neck are also much shorter than those of the great egret: it never replicates the statuesque appearance of its larger relative.

Reddish Egret, White Form, by Brian E. SmallReddish pappus, white form. April in Galveston County, Texas. Photo by Brian E. Small

Field guide treatments of the reddish egret often focus on the pink bill and shaggy plumage of breeding adults, as well as the erratic and frisky feeding behavior it often exhibits. But a white egret individual outside the breeding season can be surprisingly easy to overlook among the other white egrets. From a distance, it could be confused with the Great Egret due to its general shape. Up close, its dark bill will distinguish it, but it could be confused with the Snowy Egret. The Reddish Egret’s bill is thick at the base and remains thick for most of its length, tapering only at the tip. Its lores are grey, while those of the Snowy Egret are almost always yellow.

“The Great White Heron” by Brian E. Small“Great White Heron”, adult. March in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Photo by Brian E. Small

Although some guidebooks treat it as just a color form, South Florida’s “great white heron” is much more than that. At a minimum, it’s at least a separate subspecies of the Big Blue, and it can be considered a full species in the future, as it was for many years in the past. With its white plumage and pale beak, it could be mistaken for a great egret, but it is larger with a thicker head and more massive beak. It has a few short feathers on its head, which the Great Egret lacks. For a confirming ground mark, its legs are pale, varying from yellow to pinkish, but never black.

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Great Egret in flight.  Photo by Brian E. SmallGreat Egret, adult. April in Galveston County, Texas. Photo by Brian E. Small

The large size of the great egret is evident in flight and accentuated by the deep bulge of the bent neck, the long legs protruding from the tip of the tail, the long and broad wings, and the relatively slow heavy wing beats. Seen in pure silhouette in flight, it looks more like a Great Blue Heron than one of the smaller egrets. Like the Great Blue, when moving from place to place, the Great Egret often flies quite high above its head. This bird, photographed at the peak of its breeding color, has a rich green on the lores (between the beak and the eye), and the beak has changed from pale yellow to orange-yellow, with a black upper crest.

Snowy Egret by Brian E. SmallSnowy egret, probably adult. March in Riverside County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small

Snowy egrets are found alongside great egrets throughout much of North America, although they are somewhat less tolerant of cool climates. Much smaller than great egrets, they are usually separated by their black beaks and contrasting yellow legs and mostly black legs. However, any bird wading through muddy areas may have discolored or stained legs (and beaks), and these colors may be difficult to see from a distance anyway, so it’s important to consider shape and structure as well. Seen in flight, the Snowy Egret shows much less of the domed curl in its neck than the Great Egret, and its wings do not appear as long and wide in relation to the size of the body.

What’s in a name?

For such a familiar bird, the great egret has had a surprising number of different names. In North America, for the past few decades, it was officially known as the American Egret, then the Common Egret, and now the Great Egret. In Europe it has been known as the Great White Egret or even the Great White Heron, prompting confusion with the Florida/Caribbean bird of the same name.

But is the Great Egret really an egret, or is it a heron? To answer that, we need to know if these terms actually have different meanings.


The short answer is: they don’t. Let’s look at the graceful and beautiful snowy egret for a classic example of an egret. It even has this identity built into its scientific name, since it belongs to the genus Egretta. This genus also includes the little egret and the reddish egret. But Egretta also includes Tricolored Heron and Little Blue Heron, who, despite their different surnames, are fairly close relatives of Snowy Egret. And then there’s the Cattle Egret, which is also sometimes referred to as the Buff-backed Heron, and it’s classified in a different genus on its own.

So what about the Great Egret? It was formerly placed in the genus Egretta as well, and later placed in its own genus, Casmerodius. But based on DNA studies, it is now placed in Ardea, the great blue heron genus, along with the Great Blue Heron.

This article first appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Bird Watching Magazine.
Identify egrets and herons by their colorful beaks