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.