Ah, the egret. One of the most majestic and graceful of birds. Fashionistas of the past agreed: thousands of egrets were slaughtered for their long, silky plumes, which used to adorn ladies’ hats.
There are 3 egret species that regularly visit Colorado: the Cattle Egret, the Great Egret, and the Snowy Egret. All 3 are only found in Colorado in the breeding season and are generally white birds. So how’s a birder supposed to know which one they’re looking at?
One way is to look at where the bird is. Is it wading in ankle-deep water in a marsh or is it poking around in a (perhaps wet) pasture or agricultural field? If it’s in a field, sometimes surrounded by cows, you’re almost certainly looking at a Cattle Egret. Cattle Egrets, which somehow became established in North America in the 1950’s, are shorter and stockier than our native egrets with either dark legs in non-breeding plumage or orange legs in breeding plumage, and thick, orange beaks. In breeding season, their plumes are a rusty color on their crowns, backs, and breasts that immediately give them away. Neither the Snowy nor the Great Egret have colorful
The next biggest egret in Colorado is the Snowy Egret. Next to the Cattle Egret, the Snowy is taller and more slender with a longer, more pointed bill. As mentioned, the Snowy Egret has white plumes so it’s more difficult to tell it apart from the Great Egret than the Cattle Egret.
The Great Egret is about twice the size of the Snowy Egret, towering over the smaller bird. It’s roughly the same size as a Great Blue Heron. It can be hard to judge size if you are only looking at a single bird, however. The Snowy Egret has black legs with yellow feet, while the Great Egret has both black legs and feet, but if the bird’s feet are submerged in water, that’s not a helpful characteristic either.
The best way to distinguish between the two birds then, is by bill color. The Snowy Egret has a black bill with a yellow patch of skin on its face while the Great Egret has an orange bill with a yellow patch of skin on its face that turns a bright green in the breeding season.
So head to your nearest wetland or cow pasture and look for some egrets to test out your newfound ID skills. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed by these birds.