Boating and Birding
Cattle Egrets are often overlooked as there are so many and they are seen so often; but what do we know about them?
T he extensive distribution and rapid expansion of these egrets in South Africa, as with most countries, is because of human interaction and is the reason why they have become closely related to our livestock. It was discovered on the first cattle farms that these birds were an asset to cattle herds as they would pick the ticks and flies off of the cattle, helping the cattle rid themselves of their parasites. It is not the only reason why they walk amongst cattle and other larger animals; they do this because the animals disturb insects that fly or move off of the grasses which the egrets then prey on.
It was because of their parasite eating from cattle that the population expanded due to human interaction from originally being in Spain, Portugal, subtropical Africa and Asia to populating many more countries in the world. For example, the birds were introduced into Hawaii to help with their cattle farms as the parasite count on their cattle was very high.
Today it is unlikely to see a herd of cattle without a few or a flock of cattle egrets walking amongst them. With the many questions as to why they do this, hopefully I have put such queries to rest.
I was called by a friend one day to please help as she found an injured cattle egret in her home. I went to collect the bird and much to my surprise found that it was very calm even though it was a wild bird. It tried to escape of course, as naturally its instincts tells it to, but did not try to bite or kick or attack as you would expect a wild animal or bird to do. When I picked it up, it was so soft; it felt like I was picking up a pile of soft fluffy feathers that had escaped from a pillow; it was extremely light as well. As I picked it up, it immediately went still and awaited my next move, which was to put it in a box and take it to the vet. Zodiac Vet in Brits came to its rescue. They fixed up its wing and gave it to a well-known bird park owner in our area named Greg who is rehabilitating it.
The cattle egret has mostly brilliant white feathers except for a few brown feathers that look like a bib on its chest
and a few brown feathers on its crown.
It becomes quite brown when it is in its breeding plumage. Its legs are an olive-yellow to dark grey, sometimes appearing black, with blackish feet. It has a short heavy bill that is a yellow orange colour. The eye is yellow with a black outer ring. Some cattle egrets have the most spectacular leg and facial breeding colours. When I first saw it on a cattle egret when we did a water bird count on Harties in the breeding season I thought the bird was radioactive, it was quite spectacular. The face had this beautiful purple, pink, orange and yellow colouring that extended from the face to the tip of its beak. The feathers on the head were a bright orange brown as well as the feathers on the bib. His crest was up and chest feathers pushed out. The legs were a very bright pink and red colour. If this bird was trying to make a statement, it most certainly did. I couldn’t stop staring at its remarkable colouring. The main photo shows this very colouring and display.
Cattle egrets are found throughout Southern Africa save for a small piece along the dryer parts of the Namibian Skeleton Coast; although some areas that were less commonly populated before are slowly becoming more commonly populated due to the reasons given above and overpopulation. They are more commonly found but not limited to; grasslands, agricultural and livestock fields as well as along the coastline.
Their diet consists of insects, ticks, frogs and other vertebrates. When they feed in fields it is quiet fun to watch them. They wiggle their necks and head as if displaying to an insect and then zap, the insect becomes lunch. They do this to make the insects think that they are part of the grass that is moving.
Cattle egrets are colonial and prefer to roost or nest in trees close to water but do not limit themselves to this habitat as they will also use trees in agricultural areas or even far away from water. They will however stay close to areas where food is plentiful. They will also nest close to or with herons, ibis, cormorants and darters; however the nests are well below the larger heron species.
Their nest is a saucer shape in a dry tree loosely made up of dry twigs and weed- or reed-stems. Nests are often made close to one another and often touch. Both sexes build the nest, brood the eggs and tend to the young. The clutch size is often three eggs but can be up to seven eggs; however anything more than three usually dies due to starvation or predation.
Don’t underestimate a bird species just because you see it often or see many of them, they may play a more significant role in our lives then you might have thought.