status: Vulnerable, IUCN Endangered, ESA
Description and biology
Egret is the common name for herons that develop long, drooping plumes during breeding season. The Chinese egret is a tall wading bird with long legs, a long neck, and a long, pointed bill. It measures 25 to 27 inches (63.5 to 68.5 centimeters) long. Its plumage (covering of feathers) is pure white in color. A crest of white long feathers forming a showy plume develops along the top and back of its head and neck.
The Chinese egret feeds alone or in small groups. It wades in shallow water to catch fish, shrimp, and crabs. Male and female egrets mate for life. After building a nest in a tree or in low vegetation, the female lays 2 to 5 eggs and incubates (sits on or broods) them for approximately 30 days until they hatch.
Habitat and current distribution
This species of egret breeds on offshore islands along the western coast of North Korea and the eastern coast of China.
In winter, the bird migrates south to the Philippines and Malaysia. Biologists (people who study living organisms) estimate the total Chinese egret population to be composed of 960 male-female pairs. During the 1990s, a significant population of the species created a new breeding site in Russia on Furugelm Island in the Peter the Great Bay, about 372 miles (600 kilometers) from Korea. By 1999, 40 pairs had built their nests on Furugelm Island. These birds left behind their former nesting sites in Korean islands, where a huge airport had crowded them and avid birdwatchers had overrun their territory.
Along coasts, the Chinese egret prefers to inhabit estuaries, bays, tidal mudflats, and lagoons where it can feed in shallow water.
History and conservation measures
The Chinese egret was once plentiful and wide-ranging. Like many egret species, it was hunted almost to the point of extinction in the nineteenth century when the fashion industry increased its demand for feathers. The egret, bearing its beautiful white plume during breeding season, was a tempting and easy target for hunters. Although hunting was finally outlawed at the beginning of the twentieth century, Chinese egrets have never fully recovered.
The surviving Chinese egrets are threatened by the loss of their habitat as wetlands are drained to create farmland, particularly rice fields. The collection of their eggs, though prohibited, continues. However, the population of the egrets that has taken up residence on Furugelm Island has a much safer place to live, which is hopeful for the survival of the species.