They aren't called cattle egrets, Bubulcus ibis, for nothing. Find some cows grazing in a pasture, and there's a fair chance you'll also spot this bird.
Cattle Egrets are one of those birds that can be easy to overlook at first glance. They’re similar to snowy egrets but a little duller and smaller. But look closely, especially during breeding season, and you’ll see a different bird. Red, brown and orange plumes appear on its crown, chest and wings. Its normally yellow bill becomes reddish orange.
By the strictest definition, cattle egrets are not native to Florida — they were not here when the first European explorers descended on the peninsula. Depending on which account you read, the cattle egret originated in southern Europe and moved to Africa, or originated in Africa and moved on from there. In either case, it migrated to South America in 1877 and made its way north to the United States by 1941. Cattle egrets first appeared in Clewiston in the early 1940s, and discovered nesting near Lake Okeechobee in 1953. Since then, they've spread throughout Florida, and in fact, most of the Western Hemisphere. They can be found as far north as Alaska, and as far south as Cape Horn, the extreme tip of Argentina. It’s one of the most abundant herons in North America and in the world, with a foothold on every continent other than Antarctica.
The bird gets its name from its habit of hitchhiking on the backs of animals. As a cow or a horse moves about, it stirs up bugs, which the cattle egret feasts on. In Africa, you might see them trailing a camel or sitting on the back of a rhino.
Although they forage in drier habitats — pastures, farm fields and grasslands — they breed like other egrets and herons on or near water, often in colonies with other species.
In Florida, nesting season runs between March and September, though according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, nesting has taken place as late as November in Miami-Dade County. Males choose the nesting site; both male and female build the nest, with males gathering most of the material and females doing most construction. Females lay clutches of two to four eggs that take three to four weeks to incubate. Once hatched, the offspring remain nest-bound for two to three weeks. Both parents sit on the eggs and feed their young. Immature cattle egrets are white, similar to the snowy, but have black bills and feet.
Cattle egrets are year-round residents of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, including Florida, and along parts of the Pacific Coast. Farther inland and north, they are summer visitors, and can be seen migrating in much of the rest of the country. In South Florida, they can be found in fields, pastures golf courses, lawns and along highways. There’s a colony nesting at Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach.
Cattle egrets are members of Ardeidae, the family of egrets, herons and bitterns. Other common names include buff-backed heron.