Word of the Day: aigrette

Snowy egret (photo courtesy Karen Gallagher)Aigrette: (French) egret or silver heron

Aigrette: (French) egret or silver heron

An aigrette was a popular ornament for hats (men’s and women’s) or women’s hair in the 19th Century.  Often fashioned with a lace or ribbon piece attached to a fastener to hold the egret plume to the hat or hairdo, the term aigrette later was used to also refer to a similar decorative piece of jewelry, often set with diamonds or other gemstones.

Egret is a general term used for a number of species of white heron, and egrets can be found in tropical climates all over the world.  Like other herons, egrets have an s-curved neck and fly with their head pulled back onto their back (rather than “craned” out straight like a crane).  They live near water and catch their food by standing and wading in the water, spearing their prey with their beaks.  They will eat any type of fish, or other water-dwelling animals which are small enough to swallow whole.

Great Egret contour feather (top) and breeding plume (bottom). Photo courtesy of Karen Gallagher

Unfortunately for the egret, during the breeding season they develop long, wispy feathers in a crest on their head and neck, and it is these feathers that were considered desirable for decoration.  During the second half of the 19th Century and early 20th Century hunters by the thousands invaded the wetlands of the southern US for these birds and egrets were hunted to the brink of extinction to obtain these fashionable accessories.  Stringent protection has brought the egret back and is one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act.