The Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) is a long-legged, long-necked heron closely tied to coastal regions. It ranges from the southern U.S. and Mexico south through the West Indies to Northern Columbia and Northern Venezuela. It is rarely found far from the coast, where it feeds mainly on fish. (Martinez-Vilalta and Motis 1992; Kaufman 1996) Both dark and white morphs occur, with the white morph being far more common in the Bahamas and Greater Antilles than it is in the United States. (Lowther and Paul 2002)
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Global Range: (20,000-2,500,000 square km (about 8000-1,000,000 square miles)) BREEDING: Baja California, Sonora, Sinaloa, and Oaxaca; Gulf Coast of Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama; southern Florida, northwestern Bahamas, western Greater Antilles, coast of Yucatan, and Bonaire (Lesser Antilles) (AOU 1983). NON-BREEDING: primarily in coastal areas of breeding range, north regularly (but rarely) to southwestern (casually central coastal) California; along the Gulf coast (from Texas to Florida) and Georgia (casually north to Delaware); and south to Netherlands Antilles and northern South America (coastal Venezuela), east in the Caribbean to Puerto Rico.
The Reddish Egret is found from the southern U.S.A. (with breeding limited almost entirely limited to the Gulf States) and Mexico south through the West Indies to Northern Colombia and Northern Venezuela (Martinez-Vilalta and Motis 1992).
Length: 76 cm
Weight: 450 grams
Differs from other waders in having a pink bill (including white phase individuals), shaggy rufous head and neck plumage, and dark legs (NGS 1983).
Habitat and Ecology
Comments: FORAGING: Shallow water (usually less than 15 centimeters deep); saline, hypersaline, or brackish coastal habitats including barren sand or mud tidal flats, salt ponds, lagoons, and open red mangrove (RHIZOPHORA MANGLE) and black mangrove (AVICENNIA GERMINANS) communities (Paul 1991, Stevenson and Anderson 1994, Stiles and Skutch 1989). Occasionally feeds in other habitats including coastal beaches, sparsely-vegetated freshwater marshes, and the shores of lake and reservoirs (Paul 1991).
NESTING: Typically nests on natural islands or man-made dredge spoil islands, but occasionally nests on the coastal mainland (Paul 1991). Nests are generally constructed in red, black, and white (LAGUNCULARIA RACEMOSA) mangroves, but also in terrestrial vegetation including Brazilian pepper (SCHINUS TEREBINTHEFOLIUS), cactus (OPUNTIA spp.), mesquite (PROSOPIS spp.), huisache (ACACIA spp.), ragweed (AMBROSIA ARTEMISIIFOLIA), sea oxeye daisy (BORRICHIA FRUTESCENS), sea purslane (SESUVIUM PORTULACASTRUM), camphor daisy (MACHAERANTHERA PHYLLOCEPHALA), and spanish bayonet (YUCCA spp.). Nests are generally constructed less than 3 meters above the ground or water, but can be as high as 6 meters (McMurray 1971, Stevenson and Anderson 1994). Sometimes nests are placed on the ground among low vegetation or on bare sand or shell beach ridges (Bent 1926, McMurray 1971, Paul 1991, Paul et al. 1979, Simersky 1971, Stevenson and Anderson 1994, Toland 1991).
The Reddish Egret is typically found in shallow coastal waters, in salt marshes, along shores, and in lagoons. Individuals are rarely found far from the coast and when they are these are almost always juveniles. Breeding occurs on islands (in low shrubs, cactus, or on the ground) or in mangroves (typically at least 5 meters up in trees). (Martinez-Vilalta and Motis 1992 and references therein; Kaufman 1996)
Non-Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species do not make significant seasonal migrations. Juvenile dispersal is not considered a migration.
Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
Apparently year-round resident in some portions of its range (Florida, U.S. Pacific coast, Caribbean Islands, and South American populations), but migratory elsewhere. Texas and Louisiana birds migrate southward in fall (Hancock and Kushlan 1984, Paul 1991). Migrants arrive in Costa Rica generally in November, depart by end of March (Stiles and Skutch 1989). Individuals banded in Texas have been recovered as far south as El Salvador and Guatemala (Paul 1991).
Comments: Forages in shallow water; stands motionless and waits for prey to come within striking distance or, more frequently, runs erratically through the water, frequently changing directions, leaping, stopping and starting, gliding short distances, and spreading its wings (the latter behavior referred to as canopy feeding; Paul 1991, Simersky 1971, Stevenson and Anderson 1994). Forages during the day (Powell 1987). Generally forages alone, but may loosely associate with other herons (Stiles and Skutch 1989). Adults are more efficient foragers (32-42 percent capture success) than immatures (25-29 percent capture success; Paul 1991; Rodgers 1983, cited in Paul 1991). Prey includes small fishes (at least 32 species), crustaceans (e.g., shrimp, crabs), and insects (Paul 1991). In Texas, 93 percent of the diet was comprised of two cyprinodontid killifish, the sheepshead minnow (CYPRINODON VARIEGATUS) and the longnose killifish (FUNDULUS SIMILIS; McMurray 1971, Simersky 1971). In another food habits study conducted in Texas, cyprinodontid killifish constituted 75 percent of the diet; whereas in Florida, 78 percent of the diet was comprised of killifish (Paul 1991).
The Reddish Egret feeds mainly on small fish, but also on frogs, tadpoles, and crustaceans. It is among the most active herons when feeding, often chasing prey by walking quickly or running. (Martinez-Vilalta and Motis 1992)
Conti et al. (1986) surveyed the parasites of 36 Reddish Egrets from Texas and Florida. They identified twenty-one species of parasites, including one mite, one tick, one hippoboscid fly, three biting lice, two cestode flatworms (tapeworms), five trematode flatworms, seven nematodes (roundworms), and one acanthocephalan. In addition, one bacterial infection (Salmonella typhimurium) and one avian poxvirus infection were found.
Number of Occurrences
Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.
Estimated Number of Occurrences: 21 to >300
Comments: U.S.: in the late 1980s, there were 42 breeding sites in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas (USFWS 1987).
2500 - 100,000 individuals
Comments: World population in the late 1980s was 3000-5000 breeding pairs, with about 2000 of these in the U.S., and with 3/4 of the U.S. breeding population occurring in Texas (Spendelow and Patton 1988). In the U.S., most abundant in winter along the Texas coast and in southern Florida (Root 1988). Relative abundance (birds per 100 survey hours) on Christmas Bird Count for 1959-1988 was 0.39 in Florida, 3.29 in Texas, and 1.48 survey-wide (Sauer et al. 1996).
Generally solitary but may associate loosely with other herons (Stiles and Skutch 1989). Although known to live at least 11 years, 3 months, juvenile/adult survivorship is unknown (Paul 1991). Preliminary data suggest that birds return to their natal colonies, but long-term studies are needed (Paul 1991).
Life History and Behavior
One hunting strategy used by the Reddish Egret is to stand motionless with partly spread wings, creating a shaded area that may attract schools of unwitting small fish in search of shelter (Kaufman 1996).
Comments: Forages during daylight (Powell 1987).
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Generally nests in mixed colonies with other wading birds, but may nest alone or in small groups apart from other waders (Paul 1996). In Texas, birds typically aggregate into nesting colonies in March and most eggs are laid between mid-March and mid-April (Paul 1991); however, egg laying can begin as late as mid-June, and second clutches may occur as late as mid-July (McMurray 1971, Simersky 1971). In Florida Bay, nesting occurs virtually year-round, although in general, nesting in Florida begins in February. Elsewhere in the Carribean, nesting is generally winter-summer, but can occur year-round (Hancock and Kushlan 1984, Paul 1991).
An egg is laid every other day until the clutch is complete (McMurray 1971). Clutch size is usually three to four eggs, but occasionally five and very rarely six or seven (Bent 1926). In Texas, McMurray (1971) and Simersky (1971) found a mean of 3.1 eggs per nest (range = 1-6), and Paul (1991) found averages of 2.6-3.2 eggs. The average clutch size of 81 and 15 Florida clutches was 2.75 and 3.3 eggs, respectively (Paul 1991, Stevenson and Anderson 1994). Both sexes incubate the eggs for an average of 26 days (21-36 days; McMurray 1971, Paul 1991). Adults brood the young for another three weeks and feed the young by regurgitation for an additional six weeks (Paul 1991).
Hatching success of eggs ranges from 18-86 percent in Texas and Florida (McMurray 1971, Paul 1991, Simersky 1971). The lowest value was a result of bald eagle predation (Paul 1991). Fledging success in Texas varied from 37-77 percent; the lower figure due to human disturbance (McMurray 1971, Paul 1991). In Florida Bay, fledging success ranged from 4-62.5 percent (average = 36 percent). The lower value was caused by a food shortage which resulted in nestling starvation (Paul 1991). In studies of nesting success in Texas, the number of young fledged per nest was 0.4 (McMurray 1971), 0.7-0.9 (Simersky 1971), and 1.2-1.5 (Paul 1991). In two of these studies, researcher disturbance was thought to have negatively influenced nest success (McMurray 1971, Simersky 1971). In Florida, the number of young fledged per nest ranged from 0.09-1.8 (average = 0.6). Poor production was a result of predation and food scarcity (Paul 1991). Renesting attempts are not as successful as first nesting attempts (Simersky 1971). Although a few individuals mature when two years old, most do not breed until 3-4 years old (Paul 1991, Paul 1996).
In Florida, the Reddish Egret breeds nearly year-round, with peaks in November to January and February to May. In Texas, the Reddish Egret breeds March to June. In Baja California, it breeds in the summer. Typical clutch size is 3 to 4 eggs (range 2 to 7), with an incubation period (incubation is by both sexes) of 25 to 26 days. Fledging occurs at around 45 days. (Martinez-Vilalta and Motis 1992 and references therein)
Mated pairs may be of the same or different color morphs and broods of young mat be of either or both morphs, but the color morph of an individual is the same throughout its life. Over most of its range, dark birds are far more common. (Kaufman 1996)
Evolution and Systematics
Systematics and Taxonomy
The Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) has sometimes been placed in its own genus, Dichromanassa. The white morph of the Reddish Egret was at one time treated as a distinct species, Peale's Egret (A. pealii). (Martinez-Vilalta and Motis 1992; AOU 1998)
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Egretta rufescens
Below is the sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen.
Other sequences that do not yet meet barcode criteria may also be available.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Egretta rufescens
Public Records: 1
Specimens with Barcodes: 1
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N4B,N4N : N4B: Apparently Secure - Breeding, N4N: Apparently Secure - Nonbreeding
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G4 - Apparently Secure
Reasons: Relatively rare throughout the range, with a total of several thousand breeding pairs (about half in the U.S.). Both range and abundance have undergone reduction, and population levels have not recovered to former numbers.
As a result of plume-hunting, the Reddish Egret was eliminated from Florida by the early 20th century. Further declines occurred in Texas during the 1960s, with the population dropping to an estimated 552 pairs by 1965 from 3200 pairs in 1939. Estimates from the 1970s indicated around 1400 to 1600 pairs in the U.S., 150 pairs in Louisiana, and 275 pairs in recolonized Florida. The Reddish Egret is uncommon in Mexico, except in northwestern Baja California. In Belize, several very small colonies are reported. Prior to the decimation by plume hunters, the white morph was apparently relatively more common than it is today. By the mid-1990s the total U.S. population had reached about 2000 pairs. (Martinez-Vilalta and Motis 1992 and references therein; Kaufman 1996)
Global Short Term Trend: Decline of 10-30%
Comments: Christmas Bird Count data for the United States in the 1990s show an increase in the early part of the decade followed by a substantial decline, resulting in little or no change from the beginning of the decade (National Audubon Society 2002).
Global Long Term Trend: Decline of 10-90%
Comments: Nearly extirpated throughout range between late 1800's and mid-1930's. Gradual increase following legal protection. Population in Florida Bay, Florida, recovered from total extirpation in 1935 to 200-250 adults in late 1970's. Population changed little by 1980s (Powell et al. 1989). Christmas Bird Count data shows nonsignificant decline survey-wide (-0.2 % annual change; N = 81) for 1959-1988. Significant (p < 0.10) decline in Texas, however, (-2.2 % annual change; N = 26) and significant (p < 0.10) increase in Florida (2.3 % annual change; N = 39) the same period (Sauer et al. 1996).
Degree of Threat: B : Moderately threatened throughout its range, communities provide natural resources that when exploited alter the composition and structure of the community over the long-term, but are apparently recoverable
Comments: HABITAT LOSS: Primarily threatened by habitat loss due to coastal development, dredging operations, and hydrological alterations (Muehter 1998, Paul 1991, Paul 1996). Nesting areas are being lost to habitat conversion for cattle grazing on some islands and the harvest of mangroves for charcoal. PESTICIDES/POLLUTION: Pesticides have been implicated in a decline of a Texas population during the early 1960s. Eggs collected in the 1970s were 6.3 percent thinner than eggs collected prior to 1943, possibly a result of DDT or PCB contamination. In addition, lead intoxication may have contributed to death of a nestling in Florida (Spalding et al. 1997). HUMAN DISTURBANCE: Nearly extirpated from the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s by the plume trade. Now, disturbance to foraging and nesting birds from increased human recreational activities in coastal habitats is a serious problem. Illegal subsistence hunting threatens some populations. PREDATION: Bald eagles (HALIAEETUS LEUCOCEPHALUS) are known to prey on both juveniles and adults. Black vultures (CORAGYPS ATRATUS) prey upon the eggs and nestlings, laughing gulls (LARUS ATRICILLA) eat the eggs, and fire ants (SOLENOPSIS spp.) eat the young in ground nests (Bent 1926, McMurray 1971). Boat-tailed grackles (CASSIDIX MEXICANUS) will break the eggs, but have not been observed consuming the contents (McMurray 1971). Raccoons (PROCYON LOTOR) are probably the most serious predator of wading bird colonies along the Gulf coast. Potential predators include fish crows (CORVUS OSSIFRAGUS), American crows (C. BRACHYRHYNCHOS), coyotes (CANIS LATRANS), and domestic dogs (Paul 1991, Paul 1996). PARASITES: Known parasites include larval ticks (ORNITHODOROS CAPENSIS) found on nestlings in a ground colony in Texas, and 21 species of ecto- and endoparasites isolated by necropsy and examination of regurgitated food taken from Texas and Florida birds. Birds have also been found with SALMONELLA and avian pox infections (Conti et al. 1986).
Nineteen of the 39 breeding sites identified on the Pacific coast of Mexico occur in protected areas (Palacios and Amador-Silva 2008). Ongoing studies are underway on the Caribbean coast of Mexico and the southern USA. Conservation Actions Proposed
Clarify its population status in Cuba, Belize and other parts of the Caribbean. Monitor populations to determine trends. Identify threats to the species. Implement predator control at key colonies.
Restoration Potential: Potential for restoring to areas of former occurrence are good, provided nesting and foraging habitat remain and human disturbance is minimal.
Preserve Selection and Design Considerations: Key components of preserves designed to protect this taxon include sufficient nesting habitat and extensive, shallow saltwater areas for foraging.
Management Requirements: To prevent disturbance to nesting birds, people on foot, or in boats or jet skis should stay at least 100 meters away from nesting colonies (Rodgers and Smith 1995). Important foraging areas should be protected from development, human disturbance, filling, dredging and pollution, and significant nesting colonies should be protected from human disturbance, predation, or destruction (Paul 1991).
Management Research Needs: Need to precisely determine set-back distances to protect nesting birds from human disturbance. Important foraging areas (breeding and non-breeding habitat) and nesting colonies need to be identified; population censuses need to be improved and conducted on a regular basis to monitor population fluctuations; nesting success needs regular monitoring; key nest predators need to identified; the impact of human subsistence hunting and coastal recreational activities need further study (Paul 1991). Non-disruptive research protocols need to be designed and implemented (Simersky 1971).
Biological Research Needs: Need to determine the impact of nest predation and other factors limiting population size. Need to investigate the potential impact of pesticides washed into foraging areas. Also need to determine juvenile/adult survivorship and nest/natal-site fidelity (Paul 1991).
Global Protection: Few to several (1-12) occurrences appropriately protected and managed
Comments: Everglades National Park, Florida Keys NWRs; Padre Island National Seashore, Texas.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Stewardship Overview: Although nearly extirpated from the United States by the plume trade, is now recolonizing areas of former occurrence where nesting/foraging habitat still remains. Habitat loss and human disturbance are now the primary threats. Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data indicate declines in Texas, but concomittent increases in Florida. Regular, non-disruptive monitoring of nesting colonies needs to be implemented, and general ecology, in both wintering and breeding habitats, needs urgent study.
The reddish egret (Egretta rufescens) is a medium-sized heron. It is a resident breeder in Central America, The Bahamas, the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast of the United States, and Mexico. There is post-breeding dispersal to well north of the nesting range. In the past, this bird was a victim of the plume trade.
According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, there are only 1,500 to 2,000 nesting pairs of reddish egrets in the United States — and most of these are in Texas. They are classified as "threatened" in Texas and receive special protection.
This species reaches 68–82 cm (27–32 in) in length, with a 116–125 cm (46–49 in) wingspan. Body mass in this species can range from 364–870 g (0.802–1.918 lb). Among standard linear measurements, the wing chord is 29–34.3 cm (11.4–13.5 in), the tail is 8.8–13 cm (3.5–5.1 in), the bill is 7.3–9.2 cm (2.9–3.6 in) and the tarsus is 11.7–14.7 cm (4.6–5.8 in). It is a medium-sized, long-legged, long-necked heron with a long pointed pinkish bill with a black tip. It is distinctly larger than other co-existing members of the Egretta genus, but smaller than the great blue heron and great egret. The legs and feet are bluish-black. The sexes are similar, but there are two color morphs. The adult dark morph has a slate blue body and reddish head and neck with shaggy plumes. The adult white morph has completely white body plumage. Young birds have a brown body, head, and neck. During mating, the males plumage stands out in a ruff on its head, neck and back.
The reddish egret is considered one of the most active herons, and is often seen on the move. It stalks its prey visually in shallow water far more actively than other herons and egrets, frequently running energetically and using the shadow of its wings to reduce glare on the water once it is in position to spear a fish; the result is a fascinating dance. Due to its bold, rapacious yet graceful feeding behavior, author Pete Dunne nicknamed the reddish egret "the Tyrannosaurus Rex of the Flats". It eats fish, frogs, crustaceans, and insects. The bird's usual cry is a low, guttural croak.
Reddish egrets' breeding habitat is tropical swamps. It nests in colonies, often with other herons, usually on platforms of sticks in trees or shrubs. These colonies are usually located on coastal islands. These birds have raucous courtship displays. They generally involve shaking of the head during the greeting ceremony, followed by chases and circle flights. They also involve raising of the neck, back and crest feathers, accompanied by bill clacking, similar to the tricolored heron.
- BirdLife International (2012). "Egretta rufescens". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- "Reddish Egret". BirdLife Species Factsheets. BirdLife International. Retrieved 2009-07-29.
- "Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens)". Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Retrieved 2009-07-29.
- "Reddish Egret". World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
- "Reddish Egret". All About Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
- Lowther, Peter E.; Paul, Richard T. (2002). Poole, A., ed. "Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens)". The Birds of North America Online. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. doi:10.2173/bna.633.
- Dunne, Pete (2006). Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 0-618-23648-1.
- Field Guide to the Birds of North America (4th ed.). National Geographic. 2002. ISBN 9780792268772.
- Bull, John; Farrand, Jr., John (April 1984). The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-394-41405-5.
- Stokes, Donald W.; Stokes, Lillian Q. (1996). Stokes' Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region. New York: Little Brown and Company. ISBN 978-0316818094.
Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Often placed in the monotypic genus Dichromanassa (AOU 1983). Some accounts recognize two subspecies, one breeding in the coastal lowlands of western Mexico and the other in the Caribbean and along the northern Gulf of Mexico.
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