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.

Flowers, with a Friend

 

More than wildflowers caught my attention on my first visit to the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge. Here and there, signs of a different form of life appeared: a pond, a working windmill, a well-trod trail snaking through the landscape.

On my second visit, I met the creatures whose presence I suspected: some of the prettiest cows I’ve seen, and some very handsome steers. Grazing, along with fire and mowing, is a useful method for restoring and preserving prairies; these cattle were doing their part to help out, munching their way through some tasty-looking grasses and forbs.

Given the number of milk-heavy cows in the herd, there surely were calves around, but most remained hidden or away from the road. Fortunately, this one had chosen an especially photogenic spot to rest. When I stopped for a closer look, it raised its head as though posing, and graciously accepted my compliments.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more on grazing as a management tool, this post by Chris Helzer, the Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science in Nebraska, is a good one. For Chris’s entertaining post on the cattle vs. bison debate, click here.