Bird Watcher's General Store

Snowy Egrets Fish With Their Feet

Dear Bird Folks,

When I see Snowy Egrets flying, I always notice that they have bright yellow feet. Why are their feet yellow?

-Eli, 9, Berkeley, CA

Good eye, Eli,

You have a pretty sharp eye for a nine-year-old. Most grown-ups wouldnít notice the foot color of a flying egret. Actually, most adults wouldnít even notice the egret at all because the majority of them rarely look up. With this economy, adults spend much of their time staring at the ground, looking for lost change. And even if they do happen to look up, they would likely assume that anything white that is flying overhead is a gull, an albino UFO or a flapping cloud. Adults, as you probably already know by now, arenít too bright.

The reason Snowy Egrets have yellow feet is because of their diet. These birds love hot dogs. And what are hot dogs always covered in? Thatís right, mustard. As the birds eat hot dog after hot dog they slowly end up with mustard stained toes. Of course, you know Iím kidding. Egrets donít eat hot dogs; they eat fish. Their yellow feet come from lemonade. On hot summer days Snowy Egrets earn a little extra cash by selling glasses of Country Time Lemonade along the side of the road. And they use their feet to stir the drinks. Thatís why whenever you buy a glass of lemonade from an egret, you should ask for it to be served ďunstirred.Ē Remember that.

Actually, Snowy Egretsí feet really do play a part in their feeding habits, but Iíll get to that in a minute. This is the portion of the show where I have to tell everyone else what a Snowy Egret is. Remember, Eli, most of the people reading this column are adults; as I mentioned earlier, adults arenít the brightest group youíll come across. In fact, many of them are still wondering how egrets can afford to buy hot dogs. They forgot that the birds earn money by selling lemonade. See what I mean? Not too bright.

Egrets and herons are an odd group of birds. They are tall, long-legged and gangly, spending most of their time slowly stalking prey in scummy ponds and murky swamps. Snowies are a little more elegant and look less menacing than many of their family members. They are about half the size of their taller cousins, the Great Blue Heron and the Great Egret. And they are much sleeker than the stubby, hunched-over Black-crowned Night-Herons, which look like something that should be ringing a bell in Notre Dame. The key feature of the Snowy Egret is, of course, their snow-white plumage. While a few other herons also have white feathers, the snowyís feathers seem whiter than white. During the breeding season some of these white plumes become especially fluffy and showy. The once sleek bird now looks like itís in serious need of some styling gel, which is in short supply around scummy ponds and murky swamps

Sadly, their beautiful feathers nearly led to the extinction of these handsome birds. Weíve yapped about this topic plenty of times before, so I wonít drag you through it again. And, since you are only nine years old, Eli, I donít want to give you bird-related nightmares. Iíll just say that hundreds of thousands of these gorgeous birds ďinvoluntarilyĒ gave up their plumes so rich women could put white feathers on their hats. Fortunately, this practice is no longer legal or in style. But some birds still arenít safe from the fashion industry. A new, disturbing fad has sprung up in recent years. A lot of women (including my own wife) and a few odd men (freaky rock star Steven Tyler) are wearing earrings and hair extensions made of bird feathers. These people donít seem to understand - or care - how these feathers are obtained. Believe me, it isnít pretty.

In addition to looking more elegant than other herons (btw: egrets are really just herons with a fancier name), snowies have another thing that separates them from the pack: their feeding behavior. Most herons hunt by standing motionless, looking like an avian still life, while they wait for food to come to them. But snowies have a busy schedule and donít always have the time for the still-life method. Instead, they actively pursue fish. This is where those famous yellow feet come in.

When fishing, an egret likes to extend and wiggle its toes in cloudy water in an effort to frighten the fish, thus making them more visible and easier to catch. Another, more acrobatic fishing method is when the birds fly just above the waterís surface and dip or drag their bright feet into the water as they go. When the startled fish (according to the theory) see those weird, long, fluorescent-yellow toes coming at them, they race towards the surface in an effort to get away. Without landing or even slowing down, the agile egrets pluck the freaked-out fish right out of the water. Meanwhile, on the shore, all the other herons are still standing and waiting, and wishing they could borrow those amazing yellow feet for a few minutes.

Thanks for the question, Eli. Itís nice to know that there are some nine-year-olds who enjoy learning about birds. But what Iím really happy about is that, after a dark period, Snowy Egrets have come back stronger than ever. One last thing: please resist the temptation to wear feathered earrings or hair extensions. Not only are those things bad for birds, but theyíll also make you look like Steven TylerÖand you donít want that.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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