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Marshbirds and Shorebirds of North Dakota

Herons and Bitterns

Family Ardeidae

Members of the family Ardeidae are wading birds with long legs, long necks, and sharp pointed bills. Herons, egrets, and bitterns are similar in appearance. However, egrets are white, herons are multi-colored, and bitterns are brown. Most bitterns live in the concealment of cattail and sedge marshes, whereas herons and egrets are usually observed in open areas of marshes and wetlands. Because of their attractive breeding plumage, herons and egrets were once killed in great numbers for the sake of women's feathered hats. In 1900, egret plumes sold for $1,130 per kilogram. This demand caused a dramatic increase in market hunting which decimated egret and heron populations. As a direct result of the population crash, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order in 1903 declaring a small nesting island - Pelican Island, Florida - as the first federal bird sanctuary. Theodore Roosevelt's reaction to plume hunting initiated what later became the National Wildlife Refuge System. Members of the family Ardeidae that nest in North Dakota include the great blue heron, black-crowned night heron, green-backed heron, great egret, cattle egret, snowy egret, American bittern, and least bittern. One is more likely to observe the great egret, cattle egret, and snowy egret in late summer during post-breeding dispersal. The white-faced ibis, a heron-like bird that belongs to the family Threskiornithidae can also be observed in North Dakota.

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