Cattle Egret Portrait – A Fierce Wanderer

Cattle Egret Grunge Portrait

After much discussion on the irresponsibility and threat to a local wildlife community that carelessly  introduced species can cause, it bears some mention that when it comes to species distribution that nature will find a way on its own.  Creatures do hitch rides on all manner of transport no matter how hard we try to prevent that and migrating birds have carried seeds of vegetation and deposited them in far flung places. And, sometimes creatures are just by nature long distance wanderers and show up as they will, adding to our world, filling holes in available niches, and causing no harm.  This is true of the small but fierce white egret pictured in today’s portrait, most familiar to us as the Cattle Egret.

I always thought the little white egret with the rust plumage so often seen in association with cattle in pastoral areas was a Florida bird. Imagining our community of bird life without them is just not possible.  When traveling a few years ago, I was delighted to see this familiar avian friend in the company of water buffalo along  the bright green farmlands along  the river Nile. Although I was surprised, I should not have been.  Linneaus, in fact, gave this diminutive egret its name from an Egypt specimen in 1758. Because of its association with cattle, water buffalo and other large herbivores, its  given name is Bubulcus ibis.  Bubulcus is Latin for one who drives or tends cattle and stems from bos which means ox or bull. Its specie name, ibis, is of Latin and Greek origin and refers to the Sacred ibis of Egypt, a white bird. Known variously by common names such as Cattle Egret, Elephant Bird, Hippopotomus Egret, Rhinocerous Egret etc or Buff-backed Heron, you can see most of these names derive from the commensal relationship of the egret with these large browsing animals.  In Africa, the Cattle Egret will pick ticks and insects off of the backs of the beasts or feed off of insects disturbed by their movements. Part of the reason that the cattle egret has colonized so much of the world is due to this relationship. As humans domesticated cattle and horses, cattle egrets extended their behavioural associations  to include them as well. In the plains and marshes of  Africa the egrets competed with other insect eating birds like drongos, starlings, and beeeaters.  So as livestock ranching spread throughout the world, the cattle egret followed, filling  those otherwise empty niches.  They do perform a service as they will delicately probe the cattle’s ears or root of the tail and remove insects and parasites.

So our familiar abundant little white bird is genuinely an Old World bird originally from Africa and Europe. Reports of its presence did not appear in the New World until the 1870’s and 1880’s from Suriname in northeastern South America.  Appearing in Colombia by 1917, they did not appear in Florida until the 1940’s. Unlike other heron and egret members of its family, Ardeidae, it is more terrestrial than aquatic and can thrive in open country, agricultural areas and even urban areas. I see individuals in my neighborhood and on busy roadsides often peering intently into the bushes with its neck swaying back and forth to get a fix on its insect target. Though they may take small fish or tadpoles, Cattle egrets consume insects as beetles, grasshoppers  and flies  primarily rather than the largely fish and aquatic diet of their heron brethren. They will however nest in aquatic areas in the company of other herons and egrets. The Cattle Egret pictured above currently resides within the Pond Apple tree colonies in the waters of Wakodahatchee.

Prior to the breeding season the Cattle Egret is all white with no breeding plumes. It is early yet and the specimen portrait above shows only a bit of rust colored crest feathers and chest plumage.  Later in the season the colors will intensify a bit more as in the images below.  This peripatetic, non-native wanderer has found its way to our region and our hearts to grace us with even more beautiful and  natural diversity!

Cattle Egret Mating Colors

Cattle Egret with mating colors-instead of just yellow the bill is becoming redder with a lavendar lore and the eyes taking on a darker tinge.

Cattle Egret with intensified mating colors

Here the bill is more dominantly red, the lore very dark reddish with purple and the eyes are red. Legs too take on a distinctly red hue. Rust crest, chest and back plumage is more luxuriant. The most intense colors are just prior to breeding and will begin to fade once the nest tending begins.

Cattle Egrets nesting-displaying rust crest, chest and back plumes

This is one of my favourite cattle egret nesting pictures from last year. The nesting will begin soon for 2013 generally a bit after the Great Herons and Anhingas. The nesting cattle egrets have the rust coloring but no longer the intense red of eye, lore and bill.

This is a wonderful time of renewal in nature and never more so than at avian nesting colonies with the progress of Spring! Enjoy your area!!



Birds of Singapore-Cattle Egret

Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce


~ by Judy on February 23, 2013.

16 Responses to “Cattle Egret Portrait – A Fierce Wanderer”

  1. This is such a common bird here in Texas. We have them on the coast of course, but you can see them in pasturelands as far west as San Antonio and up into the Panhandle. They may range farther than that, but I haven’t seen them.

    I do get such delight from seeing them perched on the backs of Longhorns and other cattle. It’s clearly a satisfactory relationship for bird and steer alike. And aren’t they pretty in their breeding plumage! Now I know why some seem to have so much more rust coloring. I’ve probably been noticing them at different times of the year and didn’t realize it!

    • Yeah, they really are all over the globe!! I have always found the sight of the cattle egrets with horses and cattle in green pastures to be very evocative. The other day a cattle egret spent some time exploring my bougainvillea hedge…I never get tired of seeing one right in my own yard and watching their movements.

  2. …. Some call them Elephant Birds, or Rhino Egrets, or Cattle Egrets, etc. Around here, we call them Hood Ornaments. Nah, not because we hit them with our cars. They get the name because they love to perch on freshly washed cars in the parking lot. They never seem to pick the dirty cars – at least, they aren’t dirty until AFTER the goofy bird picks em.
    …. They are also referred to as “Walking Bowling Pins” and “Snow Birds”. I have seen them wait patiently at the street corner for the light to turn green – then mosey on across the street. Smart! And so DUMB – because they forget they can fly.
    …. Anyway, great shots, Judy! Wako is such a special place.

    • Jimbey, this waaas a very serious post on the species distribution of the cattle egret you know!! LOL!!

      Unfortunately, I was in a meeting when I decided to sneak a peak at my e-mail with the I Phone and looked at your comment. I am fairly certain some folks wondered about the suppressed giggling from the lady in the back!!

      Thanks for the levity and the giggle.

  3. Awesome post Judy! I really learned something about these birds, so thank you. Although we have lots of cattle here in Alberta, Canada, I have never seen an egret (I’ll have to look up their range), so I love that I can see their beauty through your blog!

  4. Excellent photos of this amazing bird!

    • Phil, thank you!! Last weekend I revisited the rookery and the cattle egrets are seriously busy gathering twigs..seems like the season is earlier this year than usual. Watched some ‘enthusiastic’ territorial displays between the cattle egrets and their anhinga neighbors!

  5. is very good. how many meters distance you need to take a picture of this bird, ..?

    • With the top picture I was actually very close, maybe 3 meters or so. The bird landed near me and I took pictures as I neared the bird. It posed nicely before taking to the skies.

  6. […] about two or three weeks and will fledge at about 1 month old. Adults have yellow eyes which become bright red at the height of the mating season. These little guys seem not so different than other babies and […]

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