Egrets and ibises are two distinct bird species that are often mistaken for one another due to their similar appearance and habitat preferences. Both species are known for their long legs, long necks, and sharp beaks.
However, there are several key differences between the two species that can be used to distinguish them. This article will explore the characteristics, behavior, and habitat of egrets and ibises, as well as provide tips on how to tell them apart.
Note: There are 29 ibis and 12 egret species in existence today – we will be comparing North America’s most common great egrets and white ibises.
Comparing Egrets And Ibises
|Family||– Ardeidae||– Threskiornithidae|
|Size||– Height: 3.3 ft |
– Weight: 1.5-3.3 lb
– Length: 31-41 in
– Wingspan: 52-67 in
|– Height: 23-27 in |
– Weight: 1.3-2.7 lb
– Length: 21-28 in
– Wingspan: 35-41 in
|Appearance||– White plumage, long yellow-orange beak, black legs and feet, S-curved neck held retracted when flying||– White plumage with black wingtips, reddish legs, long and curved red beak, long necks held straight in flight|
|Social Behavior||– Often solitary but might gather in large colonies (rookeries) during the breeding season||– Very social throughout the year and will nest in large colonies|
|Nest And Eggs||– Nests made of sticks, high in trees, shrubs, or very low in thickets|
– 1-6 smooth pale greenish eggs
|– Nests made of sticks and cordgrass, high in mangroves, trees, and thickets|
– 2-5 cream to pale blue-green eggs with brown splotches
|Diet||– Carnivorous: fish, frogs, mice, snakes, crayfish, and insects||– Carnivorous: Crayfish, crabs, insects, snails, frogs, marine worms, snakes, and small fish|
|Predators||– Crows, jays, vultures, owls, hawks, raccoons||– Crows, grackles, herons, gulls, vultures, opossums, raccoons, snakes|
The Key Differences Between Egret And Ibis
The key differences between an egret and an ibis are their appearance, size, egg color, social behavior, and the family they belong to.
Egrets belong to the Ardeidae family while ibises are members of the Threskiornithidae family. Both of these look-alike birds are white, but egrets have all-white plumage while ibises have a bit of black on their wingtips. More on their looks later.
Egret Vs Ibis: Family
Both of these birds belong to the same order called Pelecaniformes, a group of large waterbirds that also includes spoonbills, bitterns, shoebills, hamercops, and pelicans.
But that’s where their relationship stops: egrets belong to the Ardeidae family and ibises to the Threskiornithidae family.
Ardeidae family consists of medium to large wading birds that live mostly on coastal and inland waterways and includes herons, egrets, bitterns, night-herons, and allies (around 66 species in total).
The Threskiornithidae family, on the other hand, consists of 36 species of large wading birds with long necks and short tails (ibises and spoonbills).
Egret Vs Ibis: Size
These two birds can be easily distinguished by their size. Egrets are bigger and stand around 3.3 feet tall, weigh 1.5-3.3 pounds, measure 31-41 inches long, and have a wingspan of 52-67 inches.
Ibises are smaller and measure 1.9-2.25 feet tall, 1.3-2.7 pounds heavy, 21-28 inches long, and have a wingspan of 35-41 inches.
Egret Vs Ibis: Appearance
Although both species have striking white plumage that makes them stand out in any setting, there are several key differences in their appearance.
Egrets have long yellow-orange beaks that are straight. Ibises, on the other hand, have bright red downcurved beaks that become pink with black tips when the breeding season comes. Ibises also have longer beaks than egrets (5.6 inches vs 4.7 inches).
Their legs and feet are different too: egrets have black legs and feet while ibises have pinkish-red ones.
Although both species have long necks, there’s a slight difference when they are in the air: egrets retract their long necks during flight. This greatly distinguishes them from ibises, storks, cranes, and spoonbills, which extend their necks when flying.
Finally, the easiest way to differentiate egrets and ibises is during the breeding season. Egrets will develop long feathery plumes called aigrettes from their back. Ibises do not have such ornaments.
Fun Fact: North American great egrets almost become extinct in the 19th century as people were extensively hunting them for their aigrettes which they used as hat decoration. Thanks to several laws and conservational measures, their numbers have since recovered.
Egret Vs Ibis: Social Behavior
Egrets are mostly solitary birds but might form large groups in places where there’s lots of food available. These birds breed in large colonies and will often mix with various species of egrets and herons.
Ibises, on the other hand, are very social birds throughout the year. They form groups and forage, fly, and nest in large colonies.
Egret Vs Ibis: Nest And Eggs
Egrets breed in colonies on lakes, ponds, marshes, estuaries, impoundments, and islands. Using long sticks and twigs, they will build their nests high in trees or shrubs; sometimes low in thickets. Female egrets lay 1-6 smooth, pale green-blue eggs once or twice a year that both parents incubate.
Ibises, on the other hand, lay 1-5 cream to blue-green eggs that have brown splotches. Their nests are made of sticks and cordgrass and placed in mangroves, trees, thickets, high above ground or water; sometimes on the ground.
Egret Vs Ibis: Diet
Both birds are carnivores and have similar hunting tactics. Egrets will slowly stalk their prey or stay motionless, waiting for the right moment to strike and impale prey with their long, sharp bills. They forage in shallow water or drier habitats and mostly feed on fish, frogs, small mammals, small reptiles, crustaceans, and insects.
Ibises mostly consume crabs, crayfish, fish, snakes, frogs, and insects that they find by probing the ground with their long beaks. Interestingly enough, one field study in Florida discovered that these birds will spend around 10 hours a day looking for food.
Egret Vs Ibis: Predators
Unfortunately, these birds are threatened by different predators that hunt for chicks, adults, and their eggs.
Egrets are threatened by raccoons, crows, vultures, owls, and hawks, who mostly feed on their eggs and chicks. Occasionally, coyotes and red-tailed hawks will prey on adult egrets.
Ibises have to protect their eggs and chicks from fish crows, boat-tailed grackles, black-crowned night herons, gulls, vultures, common opossums, raccoons, and rat snakes. One study at Battery Island, North Carolina, discovered that fish crows are responsible for stealing up to 44% of ibis eggs!
This concludes our comparison of ibises and egrets. Hopefully next time you see these, you will recognize any of them with ease!