AUDUBON, John James (1785-1851)
White Heron [Great Egret]
[Pl. 386] London: 1837. Hand-coloured engraving with aquatint and etching by R. Havell, 1837. "J. Whatman. 1837". Expertly repaired marginal tear, lower left, not intruding into image. Sheet size: 25 1/2 x 38 1/8 inches . American style gold leaf, silk mat and gold bevel.
From the first edition of "The Birds of America."
Audubon rightly calls this bird "truly elegant." He pictures a male in full breeding plumage in a habitat typical of the marshy Gulf coast. The Egret emerges from the thick reed beds, stepping carefully between the mud chimneys of the crayfish, neck bent low to investigate a horned toad.
Audubon witnessed the courtship displays of these magnificent birds: "I had the pleasure of witnessing this sort of tournament or dress-ball from a place of concealment not more than a hundred yards distant. The males, in strutting round the females, swelled their throats, as Commorants do at times, emitted gurgling sounds, and raised their long plumes almost erect, paced majestically before the fair ones of their choice...These meetings took place about ten o'clock in the morning, or after they had all enjoyed a good breakfast, and continued until nearly three in the afternoon, when...they flew off in search of food" (J. J. Audubon, The Birds of America, New York & Philadelphia: 1840-1844, vol. VI, pp.132-133). This bird suffered greatly because of its plumage: "Prior to the nesting season this large, elegant white heron develops a bridal train of long white plumes" (R. T. & V. M. Peterson, Audubon's Birds of America, London: 1981, no. 34). The demand for these plumes led it to the brink of extinction, but largely through the efforts of the National Audubon Society it has made a spirited come-back, and has eventually returned to all of its previous range. "...Today the great egret nests north of the Mississippi Valley to Minnesota. There is a postbreeding dispersal during the summer months to the Great Lakes and southern Canada" (R. T. & V. M. Peterson op. cit.).
Susanne M. Low, A Guide to Audubon's Birds of America, New Haven & New York: 2002, p.195.