The Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) is a small member of the heron family. As their name suggests1, they can often be found in fields amongst cattle2. The cows provide some protection against predators, and also disturb insects and worms with their feet. Cattle Egrets eat grasshoppers and other grassland creatures, but also eat fish, crustaceans and molluscs. Therefore, you need not be surprised if you see a Cattle Egret near water with no cows in the area.
These birds can be found around the world, from North and South America to Australasia via Africa and South Asia. Originally found only in Africa, Europe and Asia, some Cattle Egrets found their way to South America in 1877 and formed a successful colony that spread up into North America in the 1940s. As their population is so widespread, they have been classed as Least Concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List. In recent years their population has increased in some areas (where their grassland or wetland habitat has been protected) but has decreased in others (they have been hunted for medicinal purposes in Nigeria, and they are vulnerable to pesticide poisoning). The oldest Cattle Egret known to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology was at least 17 years old.
Cattle Egrets have predominantly white plumage, and an orange beak. In winter they have black legs. In the breeding season their legs are orange and they have orange feathers on their breast and an orange crest on their head. Females and males are similar in appearance. Their diet mainly consists of insects, but also includes fish, shrimps and frogs. They may even eat small birds and lizards.
These birds migrate, eg from France to Egypt in winter, or in Africa from dry areas to wet areas. They build their nests (platforms built with sticks) in trees or bushes along with other egrets. The female lays up to five eggs. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs and finding food. The eggs hatch after about 25 days, and the chicks have white, fluffy feathers. Chicks are able to leave the nest and walk around at about three weeks old, and they can fly at about one month old. They are fed regurgitated food by their parents until they learn to feed themselves.
In the UK, Cattle Egrets are most often found on the south coast of England, for example at Titchfield Haven in Hampshire. In 2008 several pairs raised chicks in Somerset. However, these birds may also be seen in other areas, such as RSPB Burton Mere in the north west of England, or RSPB Conwy in North Wales.
There are no other members of the Bubulcus genus, but there are numerous other birds with 'egret' in their names, such as the Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)3 and the Great White Egret (Ardea alba). They are all of a similar shape, with long legs, long necks and sharp beaks.
They are known as Cow Birds in some parts of the USA.2Elsewhere around the world, they are known as Elephant Birds, Rhinoceros Egrets, or Hippopotamus Egrets, depending on which types of animals they hang around with.3Cattle Egrets are slightly smaller than Little Egrets.