Cattle Egret Fact File
Wild 15 years
Captive 20-30 years
The cattle egret is a species of bird found across the globe having spread along with humans out from Africa, Asia and Europe to now exist on every continent except Antarctica along with a number of islands.
Their name is taken from their habit of following cattle and other livestock around and eating the insects which emerge from the grass when these animals walk over it.
They are carnivores and primarily feed on insects with small animals such as amphibians also taken on occasion.
Over recent history they have experienced a large increase in suitable habitat and been introduced to large areas. As such few threats apart from their natural predators are recognized.
Read on to learn more about these brilliant birds.
For much of the year the cattle egret is white across the body. During the breeding season though they will take on a buff coloration to the feathers on the breast and head.
Their bill is colored yellow and is long to assist in snatching food from among grass. During the breeding season the bill turns reddish.
The upper legs are yellow while the lower legs and the feet are black. Each foot features elongated caws.
The cattle egret has a wingspan of 88-96cm (34.6-37.8in) long. These wings are large and wide to help with floating on air currents but this does slow down their flight.
Males and females appear similar but the male tends to be slightly larger. An average cattle egret will be 46-56cm (18.1-22in) long with a weight of 270-520g (9.5-18.3oz).
Cattle egrets are carnivorous. They feed on a range of insects, amphibians and small reptiles such as lizards.
In urban areas they may scavenge for food among rubbish and at markets.
Much of their feeding takes place in the grass. They will follow cattle and eat insects they stir up. Near human habitations they may transfer this behavior towards tractors and mowers.
When fires break out they will go to the edge and eat animals looking to escape the flames.
Smaller prey is swallowed immediately while larger animals are taken to water and dipped in to make them easier to swallow.
Africa, south-west Europe and Asia were the original homes of the cattle egret. Over time they have naturally moved across the Atlantic to North and South America. Populations are now also found in Australia and New Zealand. The New Zealand birds are often overwintering from Australia.
In much of their range they live alongside humans in cities.
They make their home in fields, grassland, farmland and pasture.
Cattle egrets are considered to be the least aquatic member of the heron family. Much of their time is spent in areas of grassland.
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During the breeding season the males are highly territorial. Once males have a mate they will form large colonies to build their nests together. These may include hundreds or even thousands of individuals.
Males perform elaborate courtship displays to win the attention of a female. If a female is receptive she will jump on his back.
Pairs remain together for a single season but may find a new partner at the beginning of the next season.
Their nest is built on a platform above the ground, often in reedbeds, bushes or a low tree. Both the male and female are involved in forming the nest. Pairs may make use of an old nest.
In to the nest the female will deposit 2-5 pale blue eggs. These become lighter as they approach hatching. These eggs are incubating for 23 days.
Chicks spend 3 weeks in the nest and first fly at 30 days old. Both parents brood the chicks after they hatch. They are fully independent by 45 days old.
Sexual maturity is reached at two years old.
These birds are most commonly sighted near herds of cattle. They will follow the herd and search for insects amongst the grass they are feeding on or eat parasites off the cattle directly.
In other parts of their range they will also associate with other species such as horses, pigs and even kangaroos in Australia.
They will roost in a loose colony often with other species of waterbirds. Roosting takes place in a tree.
Predators and Threats
Adult birds have few predators but eggs and chicks are threatened by a number of species.
These birds have a relationship with cattle and this is thought to have allowed for their large expansion in geographic range over the last century.
The cattle egret is also referred to as the buff-backed heron, rhinoceros egret or hippopotamus egret.
This species is split in to an eastern and western subspecies. Some authorities elevate these to full species. These two subspecies are the western cattle egret, B. ibis, and eastern cattle egret, B. coromandus.
These animals were first described for western science in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus.
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Christiansen, P., 2019. Birds. London: Amber Books Ltd.
Alderton, D. and Barrett, P., 2019. The complete illustrated encyclopedia of birds of the world. Lorenz Books.
The Maryland Zoo. 2021. Cattle Egret | The Maryland Zoo. [online] Available at: <https://www.marylandzoo.org/animal/cattle-egret/> [Accessed 29 August 2021].
Stlzoo.org. 2021. Cattle Egret | Saint Louis Zoo. [online] Available at: <https://www.stlzoo.org/animals/abouttheanimals/birds/heronsflamingosibisspoonbi/cattleegret> [Accessed 29 August 2021].
Missouri Department of Conservation. 2021. Cattle Egret. [online] Available at: <https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/cattle-egret> [Accessed 29 August 2021].
Ivory, A. 2000. “Bubulcus ibis” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed August 29, 2021 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Bubulcus_ibis/
Schofield, R. 2013. Cattle egret. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz
BirdWeb. 2021. Cattle Egret. [online] Available at: <https://birdweb.org/birdweb/bird/cattle_egret> [Accessed 30 August 2021].
Environment.gov.au. 2021. Bubulcus ibis — Cattle Egret. [online] Available at: <https://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=59542> [Accessed 30 August 2021].
The Australian Museum. 2021. Cattle Egret. [online] Available at: <https://australian.museum/learn/animals/birds/cattle-egret/> [Accessed 30 August 2021].
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