The Natural World – Foot Stomping Egret

Written by Ruth Ann Angus

August 12, 2020

A Snowy Egret on concrete embankment showing yellow foot.

Snowy egrets like to dance. At least that’s what it looks like when they shuffle their bright yellow feet in the muddy bottom of ponds and bays. They are searching for their favorite foods, mainly small fish, frogs, and snakes.

Foot probing, stirring, and raking are names for the various methods used by this talented two-stepper, who swishes one foot through the mire while expertly balancing on the other.

Snowy egrets measure about 22 to 26 inches long and are the smaller of the two egrets we see at Morro Bay, the other being the great egret. Snowys have a slim neck, thin black bill, black legs with yellow feet.

It is thought that since their feet gleam this bright color, the sight of one flashing by startles fish and frogs into motion. Once seen, the Snowy skewers them on its long-pointed bill. This fishing method is called, “foot stirring.”

Another way a Snowy hunts is by using “foot probing.” This approach has them sticking a foot deep into the muddy bottom and moving it about. “Foot raking” on the other hand has the bird’s foot barely scratching its toes across the bottom. Then there is “foot paddling” where the bird jams its foot into the mud and jiggles it up and down. All these techniques seem to be characteristic of Snowy egrets.

Larger egrets and herons use a subtler method of hunting. Standing stock still in shallow water they wait patiently for an unsuspecting fish to swim by. Then with lightning swiftness they attack, spearing the unfortunate prey.

Snowy egrets nest in mixed colonies with other herons and egrets. After courtship Snowy egrets construct a platform nest of sticks either on the ground or in a bush or tree. The female lays from one to six pale blue or greenish eggs. Incubation, performed by both sexes, takes 20 to 24 days, and once hatched, the young stay in the nest for about four weeks.

During nesting season both Great and Snowy egrets develop long graceful plumes on their backs and heads. It was these plumes that were so attractive to ladies in the latter part of the 19th century to decorate their hats.

Snowy egret plumes were in greater demand than those of the Great egret so these smaller birds were killed in large numbers. It takes about four birds to supply an ounce of plumes and it is estimated that more than 192,000 birds were killed along with eggs and young being killed in rookeries. All egrets are now protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

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