In a world in which the range of so many birds, animals, reptiles and other species is continually shrinking due to the pressure exerted by mankind’s need for more and more land, it is refreshing to find a bird that has so adapted to a life in association with domesticated animals that it has been able to rapidly expand its range in fairly recent times. That bird is the Cattle egret.
Although still well associated with the larger browsing wild animals such as zebra and wildebeest in game reserves and other protected areas, the Cattle egret has also established a firm relationship with domestic animals such as cattle and horses. As these domestic herds spread throughout the world, the Cattle egret extended its range to maintain the relationship.
The Cattle egret is a stocky bird about 54 cm in length. Pure white when not breeding, they develop buff feathers on the head, back and neck when the breeding season arrives. Indeed, it is not just the buff feathers that identify the breeding birds; the iris changes from yellow to red; the bill from yellow to orange and the legs and feet from olive-brown to reddish. The sexes are similar, but the male is slightly larger and has longer buff plumes during the breeding season than the female
The Cattle egret’s diet consists mainly of grasshoppers, insects, frogs, lizards and small vertebrates that are disturbed by the large browsing animals with which it associates. Its alternative name of “Tick bird” derives from its habit of riding on these large mammals and picking ticks off them as they graze.
The birds are highly gregarious and nest colonially, usually near water and often in association with other wading birds such as herons, ibises and cormorants, making a nest that consists of a platform of sticks in a tree. The female lays a clutch of 2 to 4 pale blue or greenish-blue eggs that hatch after an incubation period of around 22 days.
The scientific binomial for the Cattle egret is Bubulcus ibis; Bubulcus being the Latin for a herdsman, or ploughman; and ibis being the Latin for an ibis, probably the Sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) well known to the Egyptians.