By John Keeling
The cattle egret is a medium-small white heron, eighteen inches long, having a wingspan of 36 inches. It can usually be identified by its small size, its yellow beak and yellowish legs. However it is often confused with the similar sized snowy egret which is white and has a dark beak, and also with the very much larger great egret which also is white and has a yellow beak. Another characteristic of this bird is that it always looks hunched, never fully stretching its neck out.
You will often see these birds standing beside cattle or horses, waiting to catch grasshoppers and similar insects which are disturbed as the larger animal walks and forages. Sometimes you will even see them standing on the backs of these animals. They differ from other herons in being land-based rather than water-based. They eat insects, such as crickets, grasshoppers, spiders, and occasionally frogs and toads. They do not go fishing like other herons.
During the breeding season they develop distinctive patches of orangey-buff feathers on the crown of the head, the breast and on the back. At the beginning of the breeding season, typically April, the males form colonies or heronries in trees near water often in association with other types of heron. Once the territory is selected the males perform courtship displays to attract females. When a pair accepts each other, they go off to construct a nest, the males bringing the twigs and the females arranging them into a large, rather untidy dish platform. Sticks are often stolen from unused or unattended neighboring nests.
The average clutch size is three eggs, which are laid every two days. Both parents share sitting duty to keep the eggs warm for the 34 day incubation period. At 20 days after hatching the chicks can stand on the tree branches beside the nest. At 50 days they are able to make short flights, and at 60 days they fly away.
Young cattle egrets are dispersive by nature often flying far away from their nests. They are also migratory, going south in the winter and typically they do not return in the following year to the place where they were born. The young birds are able to fly great distances and have been observed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Originally from north Africa, where they were known in ancient Egypt along the Nile River. In the last 150 years they have spread out in every direction; eastward to Asia and Australia; southward to South Africa; and northward into Europe. They flew westward to South America first in the 1870s and again in the 1930s. From there they moved northward reaching Florida in the 1950s and are now also found in Canada. This has been the most extraordinary and far-reaching expansion of the range of any wild bird species.
(Ed. Note: John Keeling and his wife lead ‘Los Audubonistas del Lago’ which is a loose-knit group of people interested in birds. To receive notices of events please leave your e-mail address at www.avesajijic.com.