Description and Range
The Cattle egret originated in Africa, Spain and Portugal but is now widespread throughout Asia, Europe, the US, South America and Australia. Two subspecies, the eastern (Ardea i. coromanda) and the western (Ardea i. ibis), are recognised, but some authorities identify them as separate species.
Predominantly a plain white egret for most of the year, in the breeding season, both sexes develop elaborate buff-coloured breeding plumes on the head and neck and down their lower back. They also have diffuse buff colouring on their chest, and the eyes may appear red. The male is larger than the female, with more intense buff colouration. The bill, which is usually yellow in adults, develops a red flush, and the legs, typically dark, take on a yellowish colouration, sometimes flushed with red.
Cattle Egret Behaviour
These small, stocky white egrets follow livestock and large herbivores, feeding on insects disturbed by the foraging habits of the animals that give them their name. In Africa, they follow elephants and buffalo and other herd animals, staying close to the feet of the grazing animals or riding on their backs so they can feed on ticks and other parasites. However, they have adapted to foraging alongside cattle in rural and urban farming areas. In addition, they sometimes follow farm machinery turning over soil in preparation for planting.
Diet and Breeding
Cattle egrets form loose flocks, often feeding in small groups. Their diet consists of anything that can be disturbed by the foraging livestock, such as insects, invertebrates, frogs, small reptiles and birds. Unlike other egrets and herons, they spend little time in the water, preferring drier habitats. However, their nesting colonies are often on small islands, with the surrounding water offering some protection.
Like other waterbirds, nesting colonies can be crowded affairs, often with hundreds of nests nearby, including nests from other species. Fighting and raucous squabbling are common amongst nesting pairs and males fending off the approach of rival males. Males collect the nesting materials, while females do the nest construction. Nests are shallow dishes, approximately 40cm across, and clutches are generally two to four eggs. Both parents share incubation duties that last for 23 days.
Cattle Egret chicks develop rapidly and are voracious feeders. Within a couple of weeks of hatching, they begin to climb around the nest and eagerly await the arrival of a parent with food. The larger the chicks get, the more aggressive the competition for food becomes. The flashy breeding plumage of the adults becomes progressively more shabby by the chicks grabbing at the head and beaks of the parents. The precarious nature of the nests and the frenzied feeding behaviour result in chicks often falling from the nest, where they will perish if they cannot reach the nest again. Chick mortality can be high where food is not abundant, particularly in nests with three or four chicks. However, in areas where food supplies are good, pairs often fledge three to four chicks. Successful chicks fledge at 30 days and are independent within a couple of weeks.
Other Names for the Cattle Egret
Elephant Bird, Buff Heron, Cow Bird
Length: 46-56 cm. Weight: 270-510 g
Ardea i. ibis – Europe, south-west Asia, Africa and the Americas
Ardea i. coromanda – South and East Asia, Australia, New Zealand
Cattle Egret Photo Gallery
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