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Great Egret
Egretta alba

Great White Egret, Bangau Besar (Malay)

photo of great egret in non-breeding plumageThe Great Egret is the tallest, largest white egret that can be seen in Sungei Buloh Nature Park.

It has extremely long legs and neck. Its neck is longer than its body, and is held in a distinctive kink.

Great Egrets feed on mostly fish, but will also take amphibians (frogs), aquatic invertebrates (insects, crayfish), and reptiles (snakes). During the drier months, the bird will stalk small mammals, snails and nesting birds. But they prefer to steal food where possible.

Great Egrets are skilled hunters. They stalk the shallow waters or mud flats, walking slowly or quickly with their strong neck coiled at ready.

When suitable prey is spotted they straighten out the neck, to instantly snatch the prey. When fishing, they may tilt their heads to one side, possibly to avoid the glare of the sun's reflection on the water. Great Egrets may also use their feet to stir up the water and scare up a victim.
Mangrove and wetland wildlife at
Sungei Buloh Nature Park
Main features: Tallest (85-102cm); pure white; legs and toes black; neck usually with a typical kink about 5cm from its head. Genders look alike.
photo of great egret spreading out its breeding plumes in display
Breeding plumes on display
Photo from
James Hancock
Adult: Summer/breeding: long white plumes on breast and back; bill black; facial skin reddish; thighs reddish or greenish.

Winter/non-breeding: no long breeding plumes; bill yellow (sometimes with black tip); facial skin greenish-yellow; legs and toes black. (Great Egrets from different locations have different colour changes. This description is for those in Singapore).

Juvenile: No breeding plumes.

Call: Generally quiet. Described as a low, grating, crow-like kraa-aa, usually when taking off or in flight.

In flight: Neck hangs down more and legs protrude longer than other egrets. Wingbeats deep and leisurely.

Similar birds: Intermediate Egret (Mesophoyx intermedia): Great Egret larger, less pronounced kink on neck, shorter bill.

Status in Singapore: Common non-breeding winter visitor throughout the island including North offshore islands.

World distribution: Worldwide, it is found in all continents, including Australia and New Zealand and even some oceanic islands.

Classification: Family Ardeidae. World 65 species, Singapore 17 species. There are 4 races of the Great Egret.
When feeding in a flock, they may hop and leap frog to cut queue when prey is spotted. They may even hover over, dip or plunge into the water while flying. Their feet are not webbed, but their weight is distributed over large feet so they don't sink in the mud.

Although they happily roost with other herons and egrets, Great Egrets hunt alone or in small, loose groups. Nevertheless, they usually vigorously defend a small feeding territory from other egrets.
Breeding: A few Great Egrets breed on the west coast of the Malay peninsula, but none in Singapore (Madoc, in the 1940's, described 70 nests in the mangroves of Pulau Ketam off Port Klang, Malaysia). Great Egrets usually pair for life.

During the breeding season both males and females develop a delicate cloak of long white feathers that extend over their backs. Courtship displays include erecting their spectacular lacy breeding plumes some raising their wings or arching their necks.

Great Egrets nest in colonies together with other egrets and herons such as Grey and Purple Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons and Milky Storks.

Showing breeding plumes (on back) while at the Park, just before leaving for breeding grounds
They breed in both freshwater wetlands and saltwater marshes; building nests in medium-sized trees or reedbeds. Their nests are a fragile platform of small sticks, usually over or near water. Sometimes the nest is lined with softer materials like grasses.

1-6, usually 3, pale bluish-green eggs are laid. Both parents take turns to incubate the eggs and to feed the chicks. While most birds do not start incubating their eggs until the full clutch is laid, Great Egrets start incubating as soon as the first egg is laid. Thus Great Egret eggs hatch at different times about 25 days later. Great Egret parents also allow their chicks to squabble over food. Chicks often kill each other. Thus, if there is insufficient food, the strongest (usually the one that hatched first) stands a better chance of surviving. Great Egret chicks also have an unfortunate tendency of climbing out of their nests. They then often fall prey to predators. Few chicks therefore survive to fledge, in 6-7 weeks. Great Egrets reach maturity at 2 years and can live for 22 years.

Migration: One race breeds in North America and winters in South America; another breeds in Europe and Russia and winters in Africa; and the eastern race that visits Singapore is found from the Indian subcontinent to Southeast Asia all the way to Australia and New Zealand. The Great Egret's favoured wintering grounds for both foraging and roosting are mainly mangroves, mudflats, estuaries.

Status and threats: The Great Egret's beautiful breeding feathers where in huge demand for hat decorations during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Heavy hunting nearly drove the Great Egret to extinction before a public outcry resulted in laws to protect the bird. These have been so successful that the Great Egret is among the most common egrets in many wetlands. Recently, however, there appears to be some new demand for their feathers in South America which may again threaten them. Today, the greatest threat is the destruction of their wetland habitat (draining, pollution, drought and floods). They are also killed as a pest on fish farms, and their nests raided for eggs.

  To buy these references & others, visit
Nature's Niche
  • Morten Strange, "A Photographic Guide to Birds of Malaysia and Singapore: including Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Borneo", Periplus, 2000 (p. 51: description, voice, habits, distribution, status, photo).
  • Morten Strange, "Tropical Birds of Malaysia and Singapore", Periplus Editions, 2000 (p. 6-7: habits, habitat, photo).
  • David R Wells, "The Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula: Vol. 1 (Non-Passarines)", Academic Press, 1999 (p. 83-85: identification, distribution map, habits, habitat, migration, conservation).
  • Morten Strange, "Birds of Southeast Asia: A photographic guide to the birds of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia", New Holland, 1998 (p. 15: photo, facts).
  • Lim Kim Seng and Dana Gardner, "Birds: An Illustrated Field Guide to the Birds of Singapore", Sun Tree, 1997 (p. 84: identification, status in Singapore, distribution, diagram, number of species).
  • G W H Davison and Chew Yen Fook, "A Photographic Guide to Birds of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore", New Holland, 1995 (p. 16: identification, status in Singapore, distribution, photo).
  • Lim Kim Seng, "Pocket Checklist of the Birds of the Republic of Singapore", Nature Society (Singapore), 1999 (Abundance, status, Chinese and Malay names).
  • Morten Strange and Allen Jeyarajasingam, "Birds: A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore", Sun Tree Publishing, 1993 (p. 110: description, distribution, habits, habitat, photo).
  • James Hancock, "Herons and Egrets of the World: A photographic journey", Academic Press, 1999 (p. 64-69: identification, distribution, status, feeding, breeding, and photos of all life stages),
  • Christopher Hails, "Birds of Singapore" illustrated by Frank Jarvis, Times Editions, 1987 reprinted 1995 (p. 55: habits, description, status in Singapore, and lovely drawings of the birds).
  • G C Madoc, "An Introduction to Malayan Birds", Malayan Nature Society, 1947 (p. 36-37: description, habits, habitat).
  • John Palmer (ed.), "Exploring the Secrets of Nature", Reader's Digest, 1994 (p. 67: parents allowing chicks to fight to the death).
By Ria Tan, 2001