Cattle Egret

Bubulcus ibis

Cattle Egret in breeding plumage. Photo: John Spiers

Cattle Egrets are one the most successful bird species worldwide. A native of Africa, India and SE Asia, they were self-introduced to South America in the 1870s and have since spread throughout that continent, and as far north as the USA. They were similarly self-introduced to Australia and by 1948 were found in large numbers in the Northern Territory. They have since spread throughout Australia. The first South Australian breeding record was in 1972 at Salt Lagoon near Yalkurri, Lake Alexandrina.

Cattle Egret. Photo: John Spiers

Cattle Egrets feed mainly on insects, particularly locusts and grasshoppers. They have also been recorded taking small invertebrates, meat scraps and ticks. They are remarkable for their close relationship with cattle and other large herbivores which they use to flush their insect prey, either by following slowly behind them, and even riding on their backs. They feed during the day, pausing at midday when the cattle rest. They are the most gregarious of all herons, usually found in small flocks, but, when food is abundant they may number in the hundreds.

Cattle Egrets breed from September to February in South Australia. They are colonial nesters. The male brings reeds, leafy twigs and branches from which the female assembles a nest, which may be placed in reedbeds, bushes or trees up to 20 m off the ground. The normal clutch size is from 2- 5. Survival rate in Australia is high (over 40%).



In non-breeding plumage Cattle Egrets are all-white with yellow bill, yellow-green legs and feet and yellow eyes. In this plumage, they may be confused with the Intermediate Egret. However, compared to other egrets they have a hunched appearance, a large head and jowls, and a proportionately larger bill. In breeding plumage bare parts and bill flush red, the eyes become red and spiky orange plumes appear on the head, breast and back. The male is somewhat larger than the female and has more intense breeding colours.

Where to find it

Cattle egrets are not common in South Australia but are widespread across the state where conditions are suitable. The most important factor is an abundance of insects, and they are known to move long distances in search of suitable habitat, particularly post-breeding. Look for them in close vicinity to cattle herds especially in the Coorong and South-east.

The Eastern Cattle Egret A. i. coromanda is the subspecies that occurs in Australia.