How to tell Gulf Coast’s myriad white birds apart
It sounds like the setup for a joke missing a punchline: What’s big and white and seen all over?
One of the first things many Southwest Florida newcomers may notice is the abundance of large, pale, twolegged creatures. No, not their fellow newcomers; we’re talking about the myriad species of white birds that also call the region home.
Egrets and ibis, herons and pelicans — they all come in white varieties, and that can be confusing, since some of them look very similar at first glance.
Unlike some other species for which there are memory aids to help tell them apart (think “Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, venom lack” for the coral snake versus kingsnake IDs) retired Florida Gulf Coast University professor Jerry Jackson, the region’s pre-eminent ornithologist, can’t think of any handy rhymes for telling white birds apart.
“I’ve never heard of any,” he says, “But it’d be a good idea, because there are so many.”
Kathy Miller, who’s been trying to figure out just which bird’s been hanging around her North Fort Myers pond, could sure use one. “My mnemonic is ‘What the heck is that?’ she jokes.
Maybe the region’s pioneers were onto something, with their one-name-fitsall moniker for white wading birds.
“In my youth 70 or more years ago, most wadin’ birds were called ‘pond scoggins,’ usually with a very brief description,” according to Florida native Billy Murphy of LaBelle. “For instance,” he says in dialect, “They wuz a bunch a them great big ol’ white pond scoggins in that little ol’ pond down by our house yesterday.”
To help tell all those scogginses apart, here’s a quick guide to Southwest Florida’s white birds.
White ibis (Eudocimus albus)
Length: 22 inches.
Wingspan: 38 inches.
Look for: Pink curved bill, long neck, pink curved bill and red legs. Juveniles are mottled brown.
Details: Highly sociable, ibis feed and roost in flocks and fly in V formation, necks extended. Other waders, including egrets and herons, often follow in their path for a free meal. Both parents feed their young by regurgitation; although adults prefer saltwater crustaceans, they dine exclusively in fresh water when chicks arrive because saltwater edibles are toxic to their young.
Great egret (Ardea alba)
Length: 35 to 41 inches. Wingspan: up to 50 inches.
Look for: Pointed yellow bill, long neck, black legs and feet. Sometimes confused with juvenile great blue herons, which are larger and have green legs.
Details: Once known both as the great white heron and American egret, Jackson says. Usually feeds alone in fresh or salt marshes.
Snowy egret (Egretta thula)
Length: 24 inches.
Wingspan: 38 inches.
Look for: Black bill, black legs and yellow feet, which has earned them the nickname “golden slippers.” Distinguished from great egret by smaller size and distinctive white plume.
Details: In the early 19th century, the snowy egret was hunted to near extinction for its distinctive plumes, which were popular in women’s hats.
Wood stork (Mycteria Americana)
Length: 35 to 45 inches. Wingspan: 66 inches.
Look for: Thick gray bill with downward curve at the tip, gray, naked head and neck, gray legs and feet, black flight feathers and tail.
Details: A very slow, stalking feeder, the wood stork really excels in the air, where it can often be seen soaring in circles at very high altitude. Their enormous nesting colonies have been known to number up to 10,000 pairs; one prominent local rookery can be seen at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples.
Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis)
Length: 17 inches.
Wingspan: 37 inches.
Look for: Pointed orangey yellow bill, yellow legs and feet (though juveniles have dark legs and bills).
Details: Much smaller than other Florida egrets, this adaptable little bird can be found placidly riding cows, picking off insects as they land. That’s a carryover from their origins in Africa, says Jackson, where they hang out around large grazing mammals like water buffalo and things like that. “The large mammals were essentially beaters,” Jackson says, “walking through the grass to munch on the grass, and when they walked, they would stir up insects and the insects would jump and the cattle egrets would get them.” In these parts, they also follow lawn mowers, snatching stirred-up bugs and hang out at fastfood restaurants looking for a free meal.
Fort Myers News-Press USA TODAY NETWORK
Little blue heron (Egretta caerulea)
Length: 24 inches.
Wingspan: 40 inches.
Look for: Two-toned gray bill, pale greenish yellow legs and feet.
Details: Doesn’t their name say they’re blue? Well, yes, but as juveniles, they are indeed white, making them tricky to ID, says veteran birder and photographer Geoff Coe, who adds this tidbit: “Do you know why they’re white in their first year? Recent studies suggest that the white plumage makes them more easily accepted by snowy egrets, who are quite feisty when protecting their favored fishing spots. Because snowies are such aggressive feeders, and more efficient than little blues at finding prey, being able to tag along the youngsters survive their first year.”
Sources: Jerry Jackson, The NewsPress archives, Cornell Library of Ornithology, Birds of North America Online
A great egret
A snowy egret