The Beasties and Their Besties

Cattle egret ~ Bibulcus ibis

I’d never seen a cattle egret until I moved to Texas in the 1970s, and the reason’s quite interesting.

Unknown in North America prior to 1940 (or 1952, or ‘the 1950s’, depending on which source you choose) the so-called ‘cow bird’ spread via natural migration from Africa to northeastern South America in the 1870s and 1880s. Eventually, it reached the southern United States and began spreading northward. By the 1960s, it had appeared in California and Canada; presumably, today’s children in Iowa are familiar with the bird.

Often found on the backs of cattle, like these I photographed near a water tank on the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge, the birds will pluck ticks and other insects from the backs of cattle, but they feed primarily on grasshoppers and crickets disturbed by grazing livestock.

If no cattle are available, the birds are happy to follow anything capable of stirring up the insects they favor: plows, tractors, or even a homeowner mowing the lawn. They often collect around prescribed fires, feasting on insects escaping the flames.

Smaller than other herons and egrets — less than two feet tall — and rather nondescript even in breeding plumage, cattle egrets do offer some advantages for beginning birders: they tend to flock, and they’re easily observed.

I assumed four birds were lurking around this handsome black steer, but when I stepped out of the car, five took off.

Then, out of the grasses, the rest of the group appeared. Missing so many birds gathered around a single steer would seem unlikely, but there they were; no doubt they were hidden at ground level, enjoying a grasshopper brunch.


Comments always are welcome.

45 thoughts on “The Beasties and Their Besties

  1. As the climate warms they are making it as far north as Ontario every year, in ever greater numbers too. It won’t be long before they start to breed here.

    1. They’re year-round residents here, of course. One thing I found interesting is that their diet means they’re essentially non-competitive with other herons and egrets. It also helps to explain why I rarely see them along the coast, apart from agricultural fields or prairie. The most I’ve ever seen at one time were following machinery during autumn plowing; there had to have been more than a hundred of them.

    1. It can be amusing to watch the cattle wandering around with the birds on their backs: both of them apparently happy as can be. I’m sure the cattle appreciate the birds’ willingness to snack on the insects that bother them.

    1. It’s easy to think of cattle egrets somewhat like sparrows; they’re just ‘there.’ But the history is fascinating, especially since they’ve moved into new territory without disturbing the birds already there. Besides: they’re fun to watch.

  2. I think they are little beauties, especially in flight. Haven’t seen them in Maine yet, but who knows? As the climate continues to heat up, they just might make it this far north.

    1. I wouldn’t be surprised. It was interesting to learn about the history of their natural migration. It’s been going on for a long, long time — and I’d love to know more about how they made it from Africa to South America.

  3. my stupid computer still won’t let me visit though when the error message comes up as it does now and then on other sites in Chrome, there’s a button I can click to go there anyway but to this one. So I tried Safari again and I get the error message on it too but it will let me continue anyway so here I am. I can get to it on my phone though so go figure.

    I love the cattle egrets and they visit my yard occasionally. I would have thought I’d see them more recently as the yard is still filled with baby toads scattering at every step.

    1. Without being able to see what’s going on, I’d bet that it has something to do with your wifi setup, but I’m the quintessential non-techie, so pay me no mind. I hate that you’re having to deal with it, though.

      Cattle egrets and ibis show up across the street from me often. If it’s dry, the egrets are around: presumably after the grasshoppers and such. When we’ve had a lot of rain, it’s the ibis, probing the ground for grubs and crawdads. They make great neighbors!

    1. Now you have me thinking of empanadas and pastels. There were two women — one each from Brazil and Argentina — who used to sell them at a local market. They moved away, and now the only way to get those treats is to drive into Houston. It’s much easier to find a cattle egret!

      1. I’m surprised at the word “pastels” would it be “pastéis”? If so I would drive far to have one! The baked type is easy to make but the unhealthy, fried, is not, and I absolutely love it!

  4. Interesting post, Linda. I imagine that the cows are appreciative of the birds’ picking the bad critters from their coats. Loved your title!

    1. Isn’t that title fun? I’m not sure I’ve ever used ‘besties’ before, but somewhere along the line I added the word to my vocabulary, and there it was: ready to to be used. The cattle around Attwater are relatively placid, and obviously used to people cruising through their territory. Free range cattle make photos easier, that’s for sure.

    1. I was lucky I had my telephoto lens mounted, and I was even luckier that I realized the first few birds that flushed weren’t the last. I think their small, compact size makes them especially attractive in flight.

    1. Thanks, GP. I sometimes don’t give them the attention they deserve, just because they’re so common. They are a pretty bird, and they seem to enjoy traveling in flocks; that helped to make that flight photo possible.

  5. Wow, interesting. I knew birds feasted off insects on large animals in other parts of the world but didn’t know that happened here in the states. And they make quite an image on the blacks of black cattle.

    1. These are the same cattle egrets that feed on the backs of wildebeest, zebras, and so on in Africa. They’re quite a common sight here, although it’s just as likely that I’ll see them following mowers, plows, and so on. The herd I photographed them with is mixed, but I was pleased to find one on that black steer. The contrast does make for a fine image.

  6. I love how the long-necked birds S-fold their necks when they fly. The cattle egret shares the svelt elegance of its fellow members of the egret tribe. Too bad they didn’t make it over “B.E.*” when there were America bison roaming the plains in large numbers (insert Far Side cartoon here). Still, I would suppose any large grazing herbivore would serve their purposes.

    *Before Europeans

    1. The Cornell site mentions that these birds have an assortment of names around the world, usually including a reference to the grazing animals they team up with to forage, including camels, ostriches, rhinos, and tortoises.Their names include cow cranes, cow herons, cow birds, elephant birds, rhinoceros egrets, and hippopotamus egrets. They’re clearly cosmopolitan!

    1. Thanks, Vicki. I found myself wondering if they’re in Australia, and they certainly are. As a matter of fact, they’re listed as a species of least concern, so they’re apparently thriving there, too. Have you ever photographed them? There are enough natural areas around you that they might have been attracted to the insects there.

      1. I doubt if there are any near me, Linda. Probably on animals in the wild or on vast farms and outback stations (equivalent to the wild).

  7. Love the title!

    The Cattle Egret is another one of those “common” birds that are all too easily overlooked by birders and bird photographers. The cattle love them. Farmers love them. So should we.

    Springtime clouds of egrets following tractors is, for me, somehow a comforting sight. The world maintaining balance.

    An egret rookery is a fun, noisy, smelly place! The breeding plumage can be quite striking.

    Another great accompaniment for morning coffee. Thank you.

    1. I never thought I’d have use for the word ‘bestie,’ but never say never, and all that. I do enjoy watching the egrets and their cattle. What really caught my attention was the mention somewhere of these birds riding tortoises in Africa. I suppose they don’t have many insects to pluck from the tortoises themselves, but I’d bet those creatures can stir up a good number of insects.

      I’ve not spent much time in the rookeries around here, partly because those who visit them regularly mention the need for a really long lens. But there are some places — like Lake Martin, in Louisiana, and over near Anahuac — that might work out. For now, I suppose it’s ‘best’ to enjoy the migratory birds and wait for the spring breeding season.

  8. Isn’t Nature ingenious? What would entice an egret to perch on a cow to seek food? I imagine they instinctively know the cows aren’t interested in eating *them*, and using a high point to scan about for the treasures they want is just brilliant. Thanks for this information, Linda. I’ve seen these birds around here (or at least I think I have) and wondered about them.

    1. I’m sure you’ve seen these, Debbie. They never showed up in Iowa when I was living there, but that was decades ago, and they’ve been moving steadily northward. When the fall plowing starts here, they’ll collect in great numbers, and they’re always fun to see. As for perching on the cows, I suspect like most birds, they know where to find the best tidbits, and whatever is crawling around the cows would attract their attention — just like we’re drawn to an accessible berry patch at the side of the road. (At least, I am!)

  9. Fantastic shots, Linda! I never knew what the birds were doing hanging out with cows. Fascinating. Wish I could lure egrets to my backyard when the grasshopper population gets to be a nuisance.

    1. They’d do a good job for you, that’s for sure. I love the fact that they’ll pluck up ticks, too. Anything that gets rid of ticks is a very, very good bird!

    1. I almost didn’t post that shot, as it wasn’t as sharp as I’d like. It’s another reminder that technical perfection isn’t the be-all and end-all of a photo’s appeal.

    1. I’m hoping to find a really large flock in the coming weeks, as the fall plowing begins. It’s such fun to watch them following a plow or mower, so intent on their bug-catching they pay little attention to anything else.

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