The well-known Cattle Egret is a small (280-450g) white heron (egret) with a wingspan of less than a metre.
Cattle Egrets usually forage in small groups numbering 10 – 20, but can at times be found in flocks of thousands where food is abundant. These birds inhabit open grasslands, savannas, pastures and meadows, swamps and marshes. They’re a familiar sight wherever large wild or domestic herbivores are grazing, catching insects and small vertebrates disturbed by their big neighbours’ movements. They will also peck ticks and other parasites from these bigger animals.
As with most other egrets, Cattle Egrets breed colonially in groups numbering from a dozen to several thousand pairs, often in mixed species congregations. Nests are built of sticks in trees and reedbeds, often over or surrounded by water. In South Africa breeding reaches a peak in the summer months. Clutches of one to five eggs are incubated by both parent birds for about three weeks, while chicks become independent at about 45 days old.
With a growing population estimated at as many as 10-million, and an expanding distribution on every continent except Antarctica, the IUCN considers the Cattle Egret to be of Least Concern. Their rapid range expansion in the past 100 years is directly correlated with the expansion of cattle farming across the globe. In South Africa they occur in every province, although they’re not very common in the xeric northwest of the country. They’re also much more numerous during the warm summer months, with many birds migrating to central Africa to escape the harshest of winter in our southern climes.