Carolyn Gritzmaker Indian Trail Master Naturalist
Cattle egrets(Bubulcus ibis) are a common summer resident in Ellis and Navarro counties. They have become so numerous that it is now a very common sight to see a flock feeding in a pasture with cattle. It is sometimes hard to remember that the cattle egret is a relatively new species for us. Originally from Africa’s wetland plains, they spread outward and now inhabit every continent except Antarctica. They first arrived in South America in the late 1870’s and spread northward into North America, arriving in this area in the early 1960’s.
A small heron with a thick neck and large rounded head, the cattle egret is 20 inches long with a wingspan of 36 inches. The non-breeding adult bird is white, with yellow bill and legs. During the breeding season the adult bird’s feathers will become buffy-orange on the crest, back and breast. The bill will become a bright reddish-orange, and the legs reddish.
Cattle egrets are highly social birds and nest in colonies, sometimes with other small heron species. They nest in a variety of places, from tall trees to small trees or bushes. The colonies are usually located near water, but not always at the water’s edge.
The male usually brings the nesting materials, and the female builds the nest in less than a week. One bird will remain at the nest at all times. By 40 days they will fly, and by 60 days they are independent.
The main food of cattle egrets is probably insects. They like to hunt for food in short grass, and are most often found feeding in pastures with cattle or following tractors. They will usually feed close to the animal’s head or hooves, alert for any insect that moves, preferably grasshoppers and crickets.
Since cattle egrets are less dependent on water than the other herons, most white herons you see feeding away from water are likely to be cattle egrets. They have filled a niche that competes little with the other herons, which feed mostly along waterways. Perhaps that is one reason they have been so successful. You can expect to see them from March through October.