White heron or white egret: how to recognize them? What differences?

From white waders In Europe, it is possible to confuse the little egret, the great egret and the cattle egret. By observing them carefully, one can identify the three species.

Heron or egret, the same family

Little Egret (Egretta Garzetta), the great egret (Egretta alba alba) and the Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) are three wading birds belonging to the order Pélecaniformes and to the family of ardéidae. Following DNA analyzes, the great egret – formerly classified in the genus Casmerodius – is now considered a heron. If it looks more like a heron than an egret, it has kept its vernacular name.

White Ardeidae: an exception

Ardeids are medium to very large birds with long beaks and tall, tapering legs resembling stilts. Ideally suited to their lifestyle, this morphology allows them to grab food in water without getting wet plumage. The neck of the Ardeidae folds into an S when at rest and in flight, then stretches when the animal is on alert or captures prey. The beak in the form of dagger is characteristic of the piscivorous diet, the majority of the group. Most members of this family occupy a wide variety of habitats wet or aquatic. Their plumage is generally discreet, even cryptic for some, with shades of gray and brown that can go up to a bright red, however broken by disruptive marks. Ardeidae are the exception all white that are certain egrets and herons.

Heron and egret: how to recognize them?

Below are the physical characteristics of the three species:

The little egret is distinguished by:

  • A slender silhouette;
  • Immaculate white plumage;
  • A long pointed beak, very slightly curved downwards;
  • Large arched wings;
  • High and slender legs;
  • Long, yellow fingers;
  • Pale yellow eyes;
  • A size of 55 to 65 cm;
  • A wingspan of 90 to 105 cm;
  • A weight of 450 to 600 g.

The great egret displays:

  • A slender body;
  • A very long and thin neck;
  • Uniformly white plumage;
  • Long and tapered ornamental scapulars on the lower back during the nuptial period;
  • A black, yellow-rooted bill with blue lores;
  • Black fingers;
  • Very high black legs whose tibia presents a more or less important yellow lateral stripe;
  • Yellow eyes with a black pupil;
  • A size of 85 to 104 cm;
  • A wingspan of 140 to 170 cm;
  • A weight of 900 to 1650 g.

The Cattle Egret has:

  • A white plumage taking a light rufous-buff tint during the breeding season;
  • A stocky body;
  • A yellow crest in the mating season;
  • Short brown legs;
  • A yellow or orange beak;
  • A beak and lores which may redden during the prenuptial period;
  • Long and wide wings;
  • Yellow eyes;
  • A size of 80 to 105 cm;
  • A wingspan of 140 to 170 cm;
  • A weight of 800 to 1,500 g.

Egrets and white herons: place of life

Egrets and white herons: place of life

Overview of the global distribution and habitat of the three species:

  • Little egret is present in West and North Africa, Asia and Central America. In Europe, the largest populations are located mainly in Italy but also in France and Spain. Its numbers are gradually rising on the European continent to reach the north of the Netherlands. The egret lives in humid environments and wooded, near water: lakes, ponds, mud flats, marshes, reed beds, flooded lands, coastal areas.
  • The great egret frequents all continents (North and South America, Africa, Asia), but more often in southern hemisphere. It is often found in central Europe (lakes of Austria, Hungary and Romania on the Danube delta). In France, the wader has returned to the east, to the Camargue, to Dombes, to Sologne, to Limousin, to Brenne and to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The great egret mainly colonizes coastal and inland wetlands: soft marshes, flooded meadows, edges of streams, lakes, ponds and lagoons;
  • The Cattle Egret is native to parts of Asia, Africa and southern europe, but it is now present everywhere except at the poles. It lives both in humid areas and in dry environments. The Cattle Egret is often found in fields where it is used to following the herds of large herbivorous mammals on which it finds its food (parasites).

Heron and white egrets: some benchmarks

Here is a summary of the major differences which allow easy identification of each of the three species:

  • The great egret is much more imposing than all the herons and egrets present in Europe. Its neck is proportionately longer. In winter, it can be recognized by its yellow or orange beak;
  • Little egret is the most common of the three species. It is distinguished by its yellow fingers. In breeding plumage, it sports two long feathers very thin at the back of the head to which it owes its name;
  • The cattle egret is more in appearance stocky than the egrets. Its yellow-orange beak is shorter and stronger. The wading bird is much less present in wetlands, favoring fields. Finally, the cattle egret is not found in France unlike the great egret and the little egret, which has an increased presence.