The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, March 16, 2003

Cattle Egret Numbers Increase with the Arrival of Spring
Ro Wauer, March 16, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

Cattle egrets have become synonymous with spring in recent years. Each year as the days lengthen and become warmer, the number of cattle egrets increase as those that winter to the south of our area return for yet another season. But this has not always been the case. For cattle egrets have only been resident in North America since the 1950s. Prior to that time, this all-white bird was found only in Africa.

Cattle egrets are native to the vast savannahs of Africa where they feed alongside the native grazers, such as antelopes, zebras, and elephants. They often perch of the backs of these "cattle" to feed on ticks and flies. This behavior provided them with the names of "cattle" or "tick" birds. But sometime during the 1930s, they suddenly appeared in South America, probably the result of a hurricane that carried a few across the Atlantic from West Africa. The South American populations increased dramatically, and within 20 years they began to appear in South Florida. The first Texas record was an immature bird found on Mustang Island in November 1958, and by October 1967 it was recorded at Big Bend National Park in West Texas. By the turn of the century, cattle egrets could be found everywhere in Texas and as far to the west as California.

The cattle egret is only one of several long-legged herons that occur in Texas, and the only one that spends more time in grassland habitats than in wetlands. The other two all-white herons - great and snowy egrets - frequent ponds, streams, or wetlands, feeding on fish, frogs, and other aquatic creatures. Cattle egrets feed principally on insects and other invertebrates that they find in fields and on cattle. The larger great egret is recognized by its heavy yellow bill and blackish legs, while the much smaller snowy egret has a black bill, black legs, and yellow feet. The small, more compact cattle egret is all white with a heavy yellow bill; the exception is during the nesting season when breeding adults put on orangish feathers on their breast, shoulders, and head.

Cattle egrets usually are migrants, although a few can normally be found throughout South Texas each winter. But the majority of our birds move south into Mexico for the winter months, returning to our fields and pastures in spring. Flocks of a few to several dozen can often be often then, flying rather low in groups or trailing out in scattered flocks. At night they congregate at communal roosting sites, usually along the river or near ponds, and often with other herons. They may utilize these same sites for nesting, which also occur in colonial groupings.

Although cattle egrets are not pure Texan, like their two all-white cousins, they are now a significant and valuable member of the avian community.

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