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Living Sanibel: Cattle egret

By Staff | May 10, 2017

Although this small white bird that is roughly the same size as the snowy egret, it is easy to distinguish it from them. It has yellow legs, not just yellow feet, and a solid yellow beak. The cattle egret is also quite a bit stockier, with a larger head, a thicker neck, and shorter legs than the snowy. It feeds almost exclusively inland and is rarely seen along the beaches or mangroves. It’s not uncommon to see a cattle egret saunter along beside roadways and highways any time of the day. During breeding season it displays patches of buff orange on its crown, nape, and lower neck.

The cattle egret has one of the most fascinating stories of any bird living in Florida. Originally a native of Africa, then spreading to Europe and Asia, the cattle egret first appeared in the New World in 1877 on the northeastern tip of South America in Venezuela. There was some speculation that a flock actually rode across the Atlantic in the eye of a major hurricane and broke away from the storm near the Lesser Antilles. Seeing this bird on Sanibel or Captiva today represents the only “natural” migration of a major bird or animal most of us will ever witness.

After stabilizing its small immigrant population in South America, the cattle egret began expanding its range. It reached Florida in 1941, long after the devastating plume hunts that took a heavy toll on the snowy egret, and began nesting here in 1953. Over the past 50-plus years the cattle egret has steadily increased its range throughout the United States and is now pressing into southern Canada. It nests in all the lower 48 states. It nests and roosts in large rookeries with other herons and egrets.

The cattle egret is an opportunistic feeder. In Africa it is often found on the backs of large ungulates such as water buffalo and rhinoceros where it forages behind them, but in the Americas it has adapted to cattle, horses, deer, and sometimes follows behind tractors or along the edge of grass fires where it feeds on fleeing insects. It also eats mice, warblers, lizards, grubs, frogs and snakes. Because it prefers open pasture, the cattle egret is readily preyed upon by red-tailed hawks, crested caracaras, bald eagles, and red foxes and may be, by being an easy target, inadvertently aiding in raptor recovery. Because of its tendency to forage in urban settings, the cattle egret is vulnerable to automobile fatalities.

In the past five decades the cattle egret has become the most common heron in the Sunshine State, and unlike so many of its foreign counterparts, it is not an introduced species. It has adapted well to both agricultural and urban settings and is currently thriving. Look for cattle egrets in open fields foraging next to domesticated cattle, along the edges of commercial parking lots and in urban, suburban and most other Florida habitats.

This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.