Egrets are members of the heron family, Ardeidae, and belong to the genera Egretta and Ardea. Egrets are not biologically distinct from herons - bitterns, herons, and egrets are closely related. Here, we’ll be examining the question in detail: what do egrets eat?
Due to their biological relatedness to herons, it’s perhaps unsurprising that egrets’ diets are also similar. Egrets primarily eat fish, crustaceans, shellfish, insects, and invertebrates of various kinds. Overall, egrets can be considered carnivores, as they consume virtually no plant foods.
Like herons, egrets are exceptionally intelligent birds that use various innovative hunting techniques. For example, Cattle and Little egrets follow cattle, buffalo, and other livestock, swooping in to take any worms or other prey they disturb as they walk through fields.
These opportunistic hunters rarely miss an opportunity to seize vulnerable prey and adapt their foraging and hunting behaviors depending on what food is available in the environment at the time.
Of course, there is much more to learn about the diets and hunting behaviors of these highly intelligent birds. Read on to learn more!
Close up of a Great Egret eating a toadfish
Cattle egrets have diverse diets consisting primarily of insects and invertebrates, including grasshoppers, cicadas, crickets, beetles, ticks, moths, worms, spiders, etc flies of various kinds.
They also eat fish, lizards, small snakes, lizards, and crustaceans, but fish play a much lesser role in the Cattle egret’s diet than in other egret’s diets.
Cattle egrets are named as such because of their close relationship with cattle and other livestock. Cattle egrets are often found flocking around cattle and buffalo, using their backs as a perch.
As cattle roam and graze the landscape, they disturb insect populations which the egrets swoop in and eat. This relationship is finely-tuned, as Cattle egret foraging success is much greater when they hunt in close proximity to a large grazing animal.
Many studies have examined the relationship between Cattle egrets and large grazing animals. Cattle egrets rid cattle of parasitic and bothersome insects such as ticks and flies and parasitic ticks. The egrets pose no harm or negative impact to the cattle, who are quite content for them to perch on their backs.
This symbiotic relationship is often described as mutualist, as both parties yield some sort of benefit. However, the relationship likely evolved through association, as the egrets gradually learned that with herds of cattle came hoards of insects.
A Cattle Egret eating a large grasshopper
Great egrets have tremendously diverse diets and utilize a stunningly broad range of techniques to hunt their food. In effect, they specialize their skills to the environment they inhabit, taking advantage of what food is available locally.
26 different techniques have been recorded, including the egret stirring the bottom of marshes with its foot, probing with its bill, bill vibrating, diving, hovering in the air, spearing, and more.
The majority of the time, Great egrets hunt by walking through a marshy or shallow water environment or by watching and waiting before ambushing their prey.
Great egrets primarily eat fish, small mammals, small reptiles, crustaceans, frogs, and other amphibians. Fish are the mainstay of their diet when available, followed by crayfish and other freshwater crustaceans.
Studies in South Africa and Japan found fish to be their preferable prey, consisting of 2/3rds of their diet. Most fish were 10cm long or less.
One study in Florida found that small snakes and small frogs were common in the Great egret’s diet. Their diets vary with the season and habitat - Great egrets are flexible, intelligent, and opportunistic hunters.
Great Egret eating a large fish
Like other egrets, Little egrets consume mainly fish. However, they also eat amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, birds, spiders, crustaceans, mollusks, insects, and worms.
Since the Little egret is distributed across much of Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australasia, its diet is exceptionally diverse. Consequently, this intelligent and flexible hunter takes advantage of whatever is readily available in its typically-aquatic habitats.
Like the Cattle egret, the Little egret also follows cattle to take advantage of disturbed insects, especially flies. These intelligent birds use various techniques to hunt food but usually do so by wading through shallow water and marshes.
Little Egret fishing in the water for fish
Egrets employ an exceptionally wide variety of hunting techniques when procuring prey. One of their favored techniques is simply wading or walking through marshes or shallow water, seizing or spearing small fish and crustaceans as they go.
Like herons, egrets also employ a ‘watch and wait’ technique, ambushing unsuspecting prey from within the water or a nearby perch or riverbank.
Besides hunting from within water or near the ground, egrets also hover and seize prey from in flight, swooping down from the sky. Cattle egrets and Little egrets also follow herds of cattle, buffalo, and other large animals, taking advantage of any insects or animals they disturb.
Egrets have even been observed using bait to catch food, which is classified as ‘tool usage’, an intelligent behavior reserved for a select few species of birds, including the corvids.
By all accounts, egrets are amongst the most resourceful birds when it comes to hunting and foraging.
Great White Egret in a wetland, foraging for prey
Egrets are diurnal birds that spend much of their daylight hours foraging.
One study in coastal China found that egrets spent some 20% to 40% of their daytime hours foraging. In Uganda, egrets spent up to 70% of their daytime foraging. In marine habitats, egrets adapt their foraging times to the tides.
Egrets mostly prefer to forage in shallow water, marshes, mudflats, floodplains, mangroves, and low-tide coastal environments. Some egrets also pursue cattle and large mammals across grasslands, hunting insects the cattle disturb as they rummage the undergrowth.
However, egrets are adaptable hunters and do also hunt in the grass, particularly when large livestock are nearby. In these cases, egrets hunt a variety of lizards, snakes, insects, and invertebrates. In addition, earthworms seized from the grass are essential for egrets during winter.
Foraging Cattle Egret in a meadow with cows
Egrets prefer aquatic, semi-aquatic, coastal, and marine habitats. They hunt a vast variety of fish, crustaceans, and shellfish of various kinds.
Their preferred hunting techniques are wading and walking and watching, waiting, and ambushing.
Egrets are flexible, adaptable, and opportunistic hunters. They’ll hunt practically any valid prey in their environment at the time, adapting their preferences and techniques for the season.
Earthworms are a prime target of Cattle egrets in the winter. During winter, great egrets often forage in mixed flocks, joining herons and other aquatic and marine birds. Little egrets also adapt their foraging behavior to the winter, but often migrate in pursuit of fresh, thawed water.
A Great Egret eating a worm
In summer, egrets likely have the pick of the preferred foods available in their respective habitats, whether that be insects, fish, or something else.
That includes many types of fish, crustaceans, insects, invertebrates, small mammals, and even birds. Insect life is particularly abundant throughout summer.
Egrets mainly feed on the ground and from shallow water.
While they prefer to hunt from on the ground, they also swoop in from above. Egrets are flexible hunters - they only feed on the ground if that’s the most attractive option available to them!
Great Egret hunting for prey in shallow water
Baby egrets are typically fed by both parents, who initially regurgitate food directly into the mouths of the chicks, or nearby them. Then, after a couple of days, the chicks begin to feed directly from their parents’ bills.
Parents make between some 10 to 30 trips to the nest each hour during the first week or so, decreasing to around ten thereafter. Egret chicks are fed by their parents for some 50 days in the case of the Great egret.
Close up of an egret feeding a young chick
Captive egrets are typically fed mice and fish. If you have egrets living nearby, you can attract them with meat scraps.
However, egrets have strong hunter instincts and may prefer to hunt and kill their own live prey. Therefore, it’s not advised to feed wild egrets.
Egrets get the majority of their dietary water needs from their diet. Since they consume vast quantities of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans, egrets rarely need to drink water outside of feeding.
Egret taking a drink of water from a pond
Since plant food consists of practically 0% of egrets’ diets, they are considered carnivores.
You could consider them piscivores, but they do consume meat from other sources, e.g., invertebrates, reptiles, birds, and mammals.
Egrets prefer to feed from aquatic, semi-aquatic, and wetland habitats. If you live near egrets, you can attract them with meat scraps (preferably fish).
However, egrets have strong hunter instincts and likely prefer to catch live prey. Therefore, they should probably be left to their own devices. Routinely feeding egrets may prevent them from hunting their natural prey.
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