Cattle Egret

Bubulcus ibis

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Photo of a cattle egret
Cattle egrets are small, stocky white herons. Adults have yellow bills and legs.
Jim Rathert
Family

Ardeidae (herons) in the order Pelecaniformes

Description

Cattle egrets are small, compact, stocky, white herons. Adults have yellow bills and legs; immatures have blackish legs. During the breeding season, the legs and bills become reddish, and the feathers of the head, breast, and back are buffy orange. Voice is short with single or multiple nasal quakes or moans.

Similar species: Adult cattle egrets are usually separated from great egrets, snowy egrets, and little blue herons by their small size, yellow bill, and yellow legs.

Key Identifiers

 

  • Small, stocky, white heron
  • Yellow legs (blackish in immatures)
  • Yellow bill (reddish in breeding time)
  • Acquires yellowish-tan head, breast, and back feathers in breeding season
Size

Length: 20 inches. Slightly larger than a green heron.

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Photo of a cattle egret holding frog in its bill.
Cattle Egret Eating Frog
Cattle egrets forage in flocks in grassy, open wet areas and pastures.

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Photo of a cattle egret in high breeding plumage
Cattle Egret in Breeding Plumage
During the breeding season, cattle egret legs and bills become reddish, and the feathers of the head, breast, and back are buffy orange.

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Photo of a cattle egret, closeup of head
Cattle Egret Head
This cattle egret was photographed a breeding time: note the reddish bill and eye, and toasty-brown feathers of the head.

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Photo of a cattle egret breeding colony
Cattle Egret Breeding Colony
Like many other herons, cattle egrets nests in colonies. The nests are positioned in the branches of trees or shrubs in swamps or other wetlands.

Cattle_Egret_nest_building_Charleston_May_1993_5-15-17.jpg

Photo of a cattle egret in high breeding plumage adding a stick to its nest
Cattle Egret Building Nest
Both cattle egret parents build the shallow, disorderly bowl nest from sticks and twigs.

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Photo of cattle egret chicks in their nest
Cattle Egret Chicks
Cattle egret clutches comprise 2–4 eggs, which are incubated for about four weeks before hatching.

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Photo of a cattle egret and chicks.
Cattle Egret and Chicks
Cattle egret young stay at the nest about 2–3 weeks before fledging.

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Photo of cattle egret chicks, closeup
Cattle Egret Chicks
A cattle egret can potentially live for at least 17 years.

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Photo of a cattle egret and young on nest
Cattle Egret And Young
Cattle egrets are originally from Africa and Asia. They were introduced to South America in the late 1800s and spread northward, reaching the United States in 1941. Now they are one of the most abundant herons in North America.

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Photo of a cattle egret eating a fish
Cattle Egret Swallowing a Fish
Cattle egrets forage in flooded crop fields, lawns, marshes, roadsides, and ditches as well as pastures. They are less associated with streams than other herons.
Habitat and conservation

Usually forage in groups near their nesting colonies. Flocks forage in flooded crop fields, lawns, marshes, roadsides, and ditches as well as pastures, where they walk among livestock or even perch atop the backs of livestock. Less associated with streams than other herons. If you see small egrets foraging among cattle in a pasture, they are usually cattle egrets. Cattle egrets may join our other white herons in mixed foraging flocks at floodplain pools or appear singly at a lake or farm pond.

Foods

Forage in flocks in grassy, open wet areas and pastures. They are famous for their habit of snatching insects that are stirred up by the grazing movements of cattle. But the diet is quite varied. In addition to grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets, they also eat horseflies, cicadas, ticks, worms, centipedes, spiders, crayfish, fish, frogs, mice, and even small birds, eggs, and nestlings.

Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

As a summer resident, locally common in southeast Missouri and casual elsewhere; as a migrant and summer (nonbreeding or postbreeding) visitor, uncommon statewide. This is a non-native species. Originally from Africa and Asia, it was introduced to South America in the late 1800s. It spread northward, reaching the United States in 1941. Today, it is one of the most abundant herons in North America. Its range now extends north to Newfoundland and Alaska.

Life cycle

Present in Missouri April through November. Like many other herons, this species nests in colonies. The nests are positioned in the branches of trees or shrubs in swamps or other wetlands. Both parents build the shallow, disorderly bowl nest from sticks and twigs. Clutches comprise 2–4 eggs, which are incubated for about four weeks. After hatching, the young stay at the nest another 2–3 weeks before fledging. Cattle egrets flock when they are nesting and when they are not nesting. They spend winters in the US Gulf Coast states, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. A cattle egret can live for at least 17 years.

Human connections

Cattle egrets likely arrived in the western hemisphere via transportation by humans, and their expansion was no doubt aided by humans’ altering the landscape for crops and livestock. To livestock holders, they can be welcome because of their habits of eating horseflies and other insect parasites of cattle.

Ecosystem connections

Cattle egrets tend to accumulate water-borne pollutants in their feathers, so they may provide a way to gauge environmental pollution in some areas. Cattle egrets, and especially their eggs and young, are preyed upon by many kinds of animals.