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Based on the composition of nestling regurgitations collected during 3 breeding seasons, fish were the most important prey group for Great Egrets (Ardea alba: N = 200 nest-day samples; aggregate percent biomass [APB] = 73.4%), Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula: N = 115; APB = 91.4%), and Tricolored Herons (E. tricolor: N = 68; APB = 97.3%). For Little Blue Herons (E. caerulea: N = 57), grass shrimp (Palaemonetes paludosus; APB = 39.7%) ranked higher in overall importance than all fishes combined (APB = 36.5%). Dietary overlap, as measured by Schoener's Similarity Index, was greatest between Snowy Egrets and Tricolored Herons (77%) and lowest between Tricolored Herons and Little Blue Herons (30%). Diet diversity, as measured by Shannon's Index, was highest for Great Egrets (2.04), intermediate for Snowy Egrets (1.71) and Tricolored Herons (1.68), and lowest for Little Blue Herons (1.60). Great Egrets ate a wider variety of fish species and sizes, especially larger fishes, and more crayfish than the other species. Little Blue Herons ate fewer fish and more grass shrimp and insects, and ate smaller forage fishes than Tricolored Herons but similar-sized fish as Snowy Egrets. The coarse-scale trophic composition of Snowy Egret and Tricolored Heron diets did not differ significantly, but Tricolored Herons ate larger forage fishes than Snowy Egrets. Pronounced interannual and intercolony variation in diet composition suggested that Great Egrets and Little Blue Herons switched prey types as hydrologic conditions and habitat availability changed. Conversely, lack of such variation suggested that Snowy Egrets and Tricolored Herons adjusted their foraging tactics to ensure continued encounters with preferred prey despite changing habitat conditions. These results are generally consistent with other published data, help confirm some generalizations about foraging strategies and patterns of niche differentiation among these ecologically similar species, and have implications for managing the Lake Okeechobee ecosystem.
Additional Publication Details
Nesting season food habits of 4 species of herons and egrets at Lake Okeechobee, Florida