The Cattle Egret: A Pasture Presence

By Dave Hanks

The CATTLE EGRET, also called the Buff-backed Heron, is the white bird seen in pictures following elephants or other large animals. It originated in Africa, but has spread worldwide. The bird especially likes the tropics, subtropics, or warm temperate zones.

Unlike other birds in its family, this wading species feeds in relatively dry grassy habitats. It conserves energy by following cattle or other large mammals. The feet of mammals stir up bugs (especially grasshoppers) and small vertebrates in the grass, thus making predation easier. This bird can also be found in wetlands, where it catches frogs and fish. However, it is most often found near farmland where following either livestock or machinery produces excellent foraging results.

You can occasionally see it here in Idaho, but donít confuse it with other white egrets. This one has an orangey plume and back during its breeding season. It is 19 to 21 inches tall, has a short, yellow bill, and light orange legs. It has an interesting upright posture (almost penguin-like) that is different from other herons.

This species is very social and gathers in colonies. Thus, each territory is quite small, but the male is very defensive of it and will evict all other egrets except one female. He will bring materials (sometime stealing from other egret nests) to the female who builds a nest of sticks. She lays 3 to 5 eggs, which both parents incubate and feed after hatching.

We have often seen this white bird of pastures and roadsides all over Florida and in southern Texas where there are sizable populations. A few years ago, we were excited to see a Cattle Egret, in the used-to-be alfalfa field, just south of our home.

(On a lawn in the median between two busy Texas thoroughfares)