Originating in Africa, the western Mediterranean and sub-tropical Asia, the cattle egret has expanded naturally over the last hundred years to South America in the late 1800’s and North America as recently as the early 1950’s. Australia recorded its first migrants in 1940 whilst New Zealand’s population of egrets was established as late as 1960.
Western Cattle Egret, Buff Backed Heron
The cattle egret is a stocky bird which, when compared to other Egret species has a much shorter, thicker neck. In size it is smaller than the Little Egret and half the size of the Great White Egret. In winter plumage and non breeding birds the adult is white throughout with a yellow bill and yellowish grey legs. In breeding plumage, the nominate sub-species Bubulcus ibis ibis identified as Cattle Egret (Western), is predominantly white but with the addition of a buff coloured crown, chest and back which consist of longer feathers and plumes. The medium sized bill, legs and eyes turn red for a short period prior to pairing. Adult males and females are similar although the male is usually slightly larger. Juvenile birds resemble adults in their winter plumage but the bill is black as opposed to yellow. The sub-species Bubulcus ibis coromandus, Cattle Egret (Eastern) in winter plumage is similar to the nominate sub-species. However, in breeding plumage the buff coloured areas apparent on the cattle egret (western) are extended to include the cheeks and the throat with the colouration changing from a light buff to a much darker buff and gold and the feathers and plumes of these non white areas appearing longer and thicker. Juveniles of the eastern variant are similar to the nominate.
Cattle Egret with spread wings
Generally silent the bird will vocalise around the colony during the breeding season most commonly using short croaking sounds similar to, ‘rik – rak, rik – rak’.
Cattle Egret in flight
Often gathered around cattle and other large mammals, the cattle egret will forage on the ground for insects disturbed by these animals’ movements as they graze and also take flies and ticks directly off the animals’ bodies to the benefit of both. In general, their diet consists of flies, grasshoppers and crickets, ticks, beetles, moths, spiders, lizards, frogs and worms. They will also scavenge for scraps around areas of human occupation.
Profile of a Western Cattle Egret
Whilst it is recognised generally that there are two sub-species of the cattle egret, split by geographical habitat and plumage characteristics, some ornithologists are of the opinion that the western variety and eastern variety are in fact two separate species. In the main however, it is accepted that both the western and eastern birds fall within the Bubulcus ibis species. Confusion arises with a third dissident sub-species known as Bubulcus ibis seychellarum, which inhabits the Seychelles archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Whilst the jury is still out, although this latter egret is smaller in stature than the nominate sub-species, the western variety, it is widely recognised as being a member of that sub-species (Bubulcus ibis ibis).
Juvenile Cattle Egret
The cattle egret (western) is found extensively in sub-Saharan and north Africa, Turkey and western European countries bordering the Mediterranean and North and South America. Predominantly a year-round resident throughout much of its range, cattle egrets from Canada and the more northern states of the US migrate south during the winter but are sedentary across Florida, Texas, California and Louisiana. The cattle egret (Eastern) includes within its range, South and Southeast Asia, including the Indian sub-continent, Southern China and Japan, North and Eastern Australia and New Zealand.
Frequently seen foraging in flocks around grazing cattle and roosting in trees across dry grassland and savannah, they are a social bird often identified by their hunched appearance and synchronous head movements as they strut across the ground. Their bill and legs are smaller than other egrets and whilst they nest near water it is rare to see them feeding or gathering at the water’s edge as other egrets do.
Cattle Egret on nest
Cattle egrets breed in large colonies, usually in trees and bushes often close to water, or among reedbeds. The male chooses the nest site and is assisted in its construction by the female. Whilst the breeding season obviously depends upon climatic conditions and location, within the northern hemisphere breeding generally takes place between the months of April to June although this can extend into October within North America. In Australia and New Zealand, the season lies between November to January. One brood averaging 4 or 5 pale blue eggs is produced annually and incubated by both parents for twenty four days with fledging occurring a month later. Two broods annually have been reported regularly in Hawaii and the Indian sub-continent.
Cattle Egret with chicks
The average lifespan of a cattle egret is up to ten years although occasionally ringed birds have been recorded as surviving substantially longer.
Despite their large frame, these greyish-white birds are elegant and graceful, often found statuesque beside ponds.