Photo credit: Dan Lory

With the long-legged Great Egret I will wade into some murky taxonomic waters.

I was asked recently what's the difference between an egret and a heron. As a recovering teacher of middle school and high school natural science, naturally I wanted to come up with an answer, or some clever way to help the questioner find the answer herself. Instead, as I dug into it, I was reminded that some questions are best ignored. I also remembered fondly that frustrated plea voiced by every high schooler since the dawn of time: "Why do we have to know this %@&#?"

Truth is, in North America there are six types of wading birds that are called herons, and five that are called egrets. But there is no rhyme or reason to the naming. In fact, the Great Egret is more closely related to the Great Blue Heron than it is to the Little Egret. And the Little Blue Heron is closer to the Snowy Egret than it is to the Great Blue Heron. Are your eyes glazing over yet? Good, let's move on....

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To see a striking white Great Egret hip-deep in a marsh or along a river's edge is stunning enough to take your breath away. And when it takes to the air and glides low over the dark water, the unhurried movement is as graceful as a figure skater. Their beautiful plumes were prized for ladies' hats back in the late 1800s, and the effort to protect Great Egrets and other birds from being killed for their feathers gave birth to the Audubon Society. The Great Egret remains the symbol of that society more than a hundred years later.

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Great Egrets are easy to spot as you drive by any marshland. Look for them tucked in among the reeds along the edge of the marsh....and then get your eyes back on the road!

Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.