Cattle Egret

by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist

Keys to Identification

Size and Shape – Noticeably small and compact as compared with other herons. Short legs and a short thick neck.

Color Pattern – White with yellow bill and legs. In breeding plumage, they have golden plumes atop their head, chest and back. Juveniles have dark legs and bill.

Behavior – They stalk insects and other small animals on the ground in grassy fields. They are often mixed with other species of herons.

Habitat – Generally found in drier habitats than other species of herons. Often upland in pastures and fields.

The Cattle Egret, Bubulcus ibis, is a year-round resident of Southwest Florida and along the Gulf Coast, but elsewhere in the world is strongly migratory. The Cattle Egret has colonized much of the world, probably due to the great distances in migration. Found all throughout the tropics, sub-tropics and warm temperate zones of the globe, the range expansion of the Cattle egret is a great success story.

The Cattle Egret is a stocky heron with only a 36” wing span. It has a relatively short, thick neck amd sturdy bill and often rests in a hunched posture. All white in color with a yellow bill and yellow legs. It exhibits golden breeding plumage on its head, cheeks and throat.

The Cattle Egret breeds in coastal barrier islands, marshes, swamps and upland forests. They typically nest in colonies already established by other herons and egrets. They are usually monogamous within each breeding season, but occasionally become a trio of two females and a male. They can fall prey to nest predators like many other herons and egrets. Primary threats are owls, hawks, Black-crowned Night Herons, raccoons and foxes.

They have a diverse diet, consisting primarily of insects but fish, frogs, small mammals and birds round out the menu. When foraging in open fields and grazing behind cattle and machinery, insects are the primary food source but when in their nesting habitat and foraging in flooded fields, aquatic prey are more prevalent.

The Cattle Egret might not catch your eye and be the showy bird that stands above the rest, but the story behind the bird makes up for it. A very successful, rapid spreading, strong migratory egret with a diverse diet that it makes for it’s success may be one that you spot on the islands sometime soon. When the solid white, as photographed, gives way to the longer, gold plumage in the spring makes this bird a good one to catch in the lens.
Cool Facts:

Native to Africa, the Cattle Egret reached South America in the late 1800’s. They arrived in the United States in the 1940’s and during the past 70 years have become one of the most abundant North American herons.
Cattle Egrets follow large animals and machines and eat invertebrates stirred up from the ground
Cattle Egrets have been documented to fly toward smoke from long distances away in order to catch insects fleeing from the fire.

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