New York Natural Heritage Program
Cattle Egret
Bubulcus ibis (Linnaeus, 1758)

Identifying Characteristics [-]
The Cattle Egret is a stocky, small to medium-sized egret averaging 50 cm in length with a wingspan of 85-95 cm and a body mass of 270-500 g (Telfair 2006). The bill and neck are shorter and thicker than most other egrets (Peterson 1980). Non-breeding adults are mostly white with a pinkish-orange crest. The bill and iris are yellow and legs are dark green. In breeding adults, plumes on the breast, crest and back become salmon in color. The iris becomes a deep yellow, the bill turns orange-red, and the legs change to yellow-green and even deep red for a brief time (Telfair 2006). Juveniles are all white except for the light tan-colored crown on top of their head. Their legs and bill are black and their eyes are yellow. Hatchlings are semialtricial with olive to blue-gray skin and are covered with white down on the head and back. The feet, legs, and bill are tan. The eggs are elliptical in shape ranging from 30-55 mm in length and light blue in color, gradually becoming lighter before hatching. The shell texture is matte and smooth. Nests are bowl-shaped composed of sticks, twigs, and vines and are sometimes lined with herbaceous material. Cattle egrets typically vocalize only at the breeding colony, with the most common adult vocalization sounding like a throaty rick-rack. The chick begging call sounds like a high-pitched zit-zit (Telfair 2006).

Characters Most Useful for Identification [-]
The thick neck and salmon-colored plumes on the head, breast, and back of adults during breeding season make the cattle egret distinguishable from other white herons and egrets.

Best Life Stage for Proper Identification [-]
Cattle egrets can be easily identified when the adults are in their breeding plumage.

Behavior [-]
Populations of cattle egrets in the northern part of their range including New York are migratory, arriving at their breeding grounds between March and early May. Pairs form shortly after arriving. Eggs are laid a few weeks later at two-day intervals, taking about a week to put down a full clutch of three to five eggs (Weber 1975; Telfair 2006). Incubation ranges from 22-25 days with both male and female taking turns incubating. Hatching is asynchronous and occasionally results in mortality of younger chicks (Weber 1975). Cattle egrets typically forage in groups among grazing mammals, sometimes seen riding on the animal‘s back. They leave the colony after sunrise, feed to mid-afternoon, then return to the colony an hour after sunset (Siegfried 1971). The most common foraging technique involves walking slowly and then making quick jabs at their prey. Birds that forage among grazing mammals have been shown to be more successful at catching prey and use less energy than those that forage alone (Dinsmore 1973; Grubb 1976).

Diet [-]
Cattle egrets forage for a variety of organisms. Common foods taken are spiders, grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars, and earthworms (Seigfried 1971; Fogarty and Hetrick 1973). If foraging near water, frogs and small fish will be consumed. Cattle egrets have also been known to consume small passerine birds and rodents (Seigfried 1971).
Cattle Egret Images
click to enlarge
The Best Time to See
Cattle Egrets can be found breeding in New York from late May to early August (Telfair 2006).
Present Breeding
The time of year you would expect to find Cattle Egret present (blue shading) and breeding (orange shading) in New York.
Similar Species
  • Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)
    The snowy egret has a longer and slimmer neck, black bill, and yellow feet.
  • Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea)
    Juvenile little blue herons which are white, have a dark bill and green legs.