Strung out in a field like discarded bowling pins, the gregarious Cattle Egret hunts its main prey of insects like grasshoppers, crickets, and flies, plus spiders and small animals. Unlike other herons and egrets that typically feed in or along water, this 20 inch bird is more common in dry fields and grasslands and may use grazing animals to flush up insects or other goodies to be captured. However, it will also feed in flooded fields and marshes for frogs, fish, tadpoles, crayfish, and other small vertebrates including nestling birds, lizards, and snakes.
The Cattle Egret Latin name, Bubulcus, translates “belonging to cattle.” In North America we tend to think of this egret with cattle or horses. A variety of common names portrait the grazing animals it associates with whether domestic or wild such as elephant bird, rhino bird, camel bird, hippo bird, cow bird, capybara bird, and many others. Sometimes it forages with ostriches or other large birds. Often called “tick bird,” research indicates the bill structure isn’t adapted for tick removal but could pick off crawling ticks.
Listen to a common Cattle Egret call of “rick rack” which is not the way to call cattle:
https://www.xeno-canto.org/403813 (click on white arrow, then click on gray sonogram)
This egret may dine alone or in a flock of hundreds. Research indicates a single egret foraging with tractor/farm equipment in a field results in a higher capture rate of more prey than any other method. The next best rate involves a single egret to select and defend only one grazer. A “# 1” so to speak. About 83% of Cattle Egrets jockey for position for the front of a grazing mammal, 13% at the side and only 4% at the back. One study suggested that this species chooses mammals that average 5-15 steps/minute.
But would you consider it also stands adjacent to airport runways to nab prey scattered by airplanes? Or that it also follows lawn mowers that can scare up quarry as well? Plus as an opportunistic feeder everything seems right down its alley because, it also feeds at dumps, golf courses, parks, roadsides, and sports fields.
More closely related to herons than whitish egrets, this stockier and shorter-necked heron is a small white heron with a yellow bill and black legs as a non-breeding adult.
However, in the breeding season it can exhibit color changes in bare facial skin, eyes, and legs. During a three week courtship, the larger male wears more “make-up” since it sports more intense breeding colors than the female. Eyes and legs turn red and the yellow bill turns red at the base while the lores show purplish pink.
Buffy-colored plumes adorn the back, neck and crown.(Those plumes remind me of “hair on” the back; maybe that’s why they’re called herons.) However, color changes may or may not be synchronized among pairs.Then the bills, eyes, and legs eventually fade to yellow legs and bills during the rest of the breeding season.
Although considered a dry habitat bird, it seems to prefer nesting in trees or shrubs close to water, often on islands with other herons and egrets or cormorants, anhingas, ibises, and storks. Both a male and female may build their bowl-shaped nest but the female architects most of the nest from single sticks brought by the male.(Yes, I used several bowling terms in this article.)
Sometimes a large colony can displace other herons from a roost and also from a rookery when it overpowers nesting sites or claims other nests. In this series below, a young Great Egret reclaims its home nest from a Cattle Egret.
Young may strike out on their own at about six weeks and then fly thousands of miles. This dispersive behavior along with opportunistic feeding, and adaptations to a variety of habitats probably contributed to the worldwide expansion of this species from Africa.
Supposedly it reached South America in the 1870s. First nesting recorded in the USA in 1953 with sight records in Quintana Roo in 1956, and Campeche and Yucatan in 1963. It is a permanent resident with a winter migratory population in Yucatan.
Range expansion continues around the world, especially where forests are cleared and grazers introduced. It is spotted in Antarctica, flying across the Atlantic from Africa, and even in the Himalayan mountains at 15,000+ feet!
YOU CAN BENEFIT FROM NATURE IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD OR PARK WITHOUT FLYING THOUSANDS OF MILES. IF YOU DON’T ENJOY NATURE, YOU WILL HAVE ‘E-GRETS’.
DISCLAIMER: References REALLY do not agree on data about this species.
Sal a Pajarear Yucatán, Bird & Reserves of the Yucatan Peninsula, A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and North Central America, A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, Florida’s Birds, Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, Lives of North American Birds
Paul Marvin, XC403813. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/403813
Cherie Pittillo, “nature inspired,” photographer and author, explores nature everywhere she goes. She’s identified 56 bird species in her Merida, Yucatan backyard view. Her monthly column features anecdotes about birding in Merida, Yucatan and also wildlife beyond the Yucatan.
Contact: email@example.com All rights reserved, ©Cherie Pittillo
4 Reactions on this Article
Thank you for profiling this species! Your pictures are amazing as always.
Thanks so much, Diane. Fascinating bird, isn’t it?
Super shots of one of my favorite birds. Didn’t know a lot of the info you provided. So interesting! Thanks for another great article.
Thank you, Bruce Krucke, for your constant support. I learned a lot too! Quite fascinating.
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