It was once believed the elegant, long-necked great egret brushed glowing powder from the white feathers of its breast to aid in moonlight foraging.

The great egret (Ardea alba) is the largest white egret occurring in most of its range. They stand three feet tall with a wingspan of about five feet. The white form of the great blue heron is larger but mostly confined to South Florida.

Great egrets fly slowly but powerfully with just two wing beats per second, their cruising speed around 25 mph.

All of the plumage of the great heron is pristinely white, but during mating season, a patch of skin on its face turns neon green, and long plumes called aigrettes grow from its back.

Great egrets are found feeding in wetlands, streams, ponds, tidal flats, and other areas. They hunt in both salt and fresh water and hunt by walking slowly or standing still for long periods, waiting for prey to come within reach. The deathblow is delivered with a quick thrust of the long, razor bill, and the prey is swallowed whole.

Fish are a dietary staple, but great egrets will eat amphibians, reptiles, mice, and other small animals. They may also fish by swimming or hovering over the water.

These birds nest in groups in trees, near water. Colonies may include other heron or egret species. They mate for life, and both parents incubate their three to four eggs.

Stronger siblings often kill their weaker kin so that not all survive to fledge in two to three weeks.

The great egret, symbol of the National Audubon Society, represents a conservation success story. Their long white plumes almost spelled their doom. Up to 95 percent of the world’s great herons were killed by hunters during the 19th and early 20th centuries seeking mating plumes for ladies’ hats.

Great herons have now been protected for more than a century and have made a robust comeback. It is now found seasonally in much of North and South America and Canada.