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Cattle Egret

Above: Cattle Egret by Garry Budyk

How do I recognize it?
In the breeding season, this small egret (20” tall) can be most easily identified by its orange/buffy head, chest, and back plums. Aside from its showy plumes, the Cattle Egret has a stark-white body, short orange bill, and orange legs/feet. Other egret species which can be found in the province include the more common Great Egret (which is great indeed, standing 39” tall) and rare occurrences of Snowy Egret (24” tall). The Snowy Egret, which is the most comparable to the Cattle Egret, has a black bill, black legs, and yellow feet.
Outside of the breeding season, Cattle Egrets do change in appearance. They will lack their showy orange plumes, their bill will become more yellow than orange, and they will develop black legs and feet. Cattle Egret can still be distinguished from the Snowy Egret, which will have stark yellow feet.

Does it migrate?
The Cattle Egret does indeed migrate! Despite the fact it would be well camouflaged for our snowy winters, this egret prefers the warmer climates of the southern USA, Central America, and Caribbean. For those Manitobans which enjoy vacationing down south during the winter, the Cattle Egret can often be spotted in rural areas alongside livestock they are named after.

Above: Cattle Egret overwintering in a cattle pasture in Matanzas, Cuba by Lynnea Parker

Where does it live?
Globally, the Cattle Egret breeds in a wide array of aquatic habitats from coastal islands to marshes to upland forests. In Manitoba, the Cattle Egret has been known to breed in deep water wetlands/lakes with emergent vegetation for nesting in colonies. This species also benefits from nearby grasslands/hay lands/pastures which are grazed by livestock, namely cattle or bison. Cattle egret and cattle are known to have a symbiotic relationship, where the egrets will feed on insects that are bothersome to cattle. In turn, as the cattle forage they stimulate insects and other sources of food which the Cattle Egret benefits from.

Above: Cattle Egret by Christian Artuso

Where can I see it?
Cattle Egret are originally from Europe and Africa. Since 1877, when the species first established themselves in South America, they have expanded their distribution greatly across North America. The Cattle Egret currently classified as a rare breeder in Manitoba. From 2010 to 2014 Bird Studies Canada led an intensive campaign to document breeding birds found in Manitoba. During their survey efforts, the Cattle Egret was confirmed to be breeding in southwestern Manitoba at Whitewater Lake IBA. While breeding could not be confirmed elsewhere in the province, Cattle Egret were documented near Oak Lake/Plum Lakes Area IBA and North, West, and East Shoal Lakes IBA. Currently, active cattle pastures near Whitewater Lake remain the most reliable destination in the province to see this quirky egret.

Above: cattle Egret standing on a cow by Lynnea Parker

Conservation Status:
While populations of Cattle Egret in North America are reported to have declined by 50% between 1966 and 2015 (North American Breeding Bird Survey), they are not considered a species of concern. Despite apparent declines in abundance, this species is still undergoing range expansions since its arrival in North America in the 1950s. 

Did you know:
Juvenile Cattle Egrets have been documented dispersing over great distances, up to 5,000km away from their natal colonies.