This week’s featured bird is one you’ve probably seen, but how well do you really know the cattle egret? They’re fun little waders, widespread, and familiar to birders all over the world. Learn more about them, including how to add one to your life list!
Cattle Egret Fun Facts
The cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) is a small white heron, and is often so familiar that it can be overlooked. But if you don’t look closely, you’ll miss the amazing traits these birds have!
- Cattle egrets are wading birds, but are rarely seen wading. Their habitats include marshes, swamps, wetlands, pastures, agricultural fields, rice paddies, reservoirs, sports fields and roadside ditches, but they don’t often actually step in the water.
- These birds belong to the Ardeidae family with other herons. Some classifications have split the cattle egret into two species, the eastern cattle egret (found in Asia and Australia), and the western cattle egret (the rest of its range).
- Cattle egrets are found on every continent except Antarctica. They originated in southern Europe, Asia and Africa, and are expanding worldwide thanks to their adaptability. They first appeared in South American in the 1870s, then North America in the 1950s, and their range is still expanding.
- Because of their rapid range expansion, cattle egrets are sometimes classified as invasive. There have been no notable instances of them causing great harm or difficulty to native birds in new areas, however, but in some urban and suburban areas large roosts may be troublesome because of noise and debris, and they may be culled.
- These birds eat anything they can catch, including insects, fish, snakes, lizards, small birds, small mammals, crustaceans, amphibians, mollusks, moths, eggs, and even bits of trash. Rare records even note cattle egrets eating some fruit.
- Though called the cattle egret because it will follow herds of cattle waiting for prey to be flushed for easy hunting, these birds will actually follow any grazing animals, including camels, zebras, horses, deer, elephants, giraffes, antelope, wildebeests, kangaroos, etc. In farm communities, they even follow agricultural equipment through the fields.
- In different areas, these birds have different names, often relating to the animals the birds associate with when feeding. Cow heron, rhinoceros egret, elephant bird, hippopotamus egret and ditch chicken are just a few of their names. They may also be called the buff-backed heron because of their colorful breeding plumage.
- The buff-gold coloration on the head, chest and back is breeding plumage, and the extent of the color can vary widely in different populations. Rare morphs may have nearly fully colored heads and necks, and a blue-gray breeding color variation is also occasionally seen. Outside the breeding season, these birds are entirely white.
- Cattle egrets sometimes breed with snowy egrets, little blue herons and little egrets, but this hybridization is rare. The worldwide population of cattle egrets is estimated between 4-10 million individuals, and is slowly increasing.
Add the Cattle Egret to Your Life List
Now that you know more about cattle egrets, how can you go about adding one to your life list? With how widespread and adaptable they are, it isn’t too hard! Within their range, just visit open fields or a local farm or pasture, preferably with some livestock in the area, and you’re likely to see these egrets slowly pacing about as they forage. They are active throughout the day, so you can see them anytime. In flocks of different wading birds, look closely at small white herons, since cattle egrets can look similar to snowy egrets and other waders, but especially in the breeding season, their buffy accents and orange-red bills will be distinctive.
Learn More About the Cattle Egret
If you want to learn more about these fun waders, check out…
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology: More identification tips and a North American range map
- Xeno-Canto: Calls from cattle egrets around the world, including adults and juveniles
- BirdLife International: Worldwide range map noting year-round and migratory populations
- Wildscreen Arkive: Extensive photo and video gallery of cattle egrets