Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)

Cover image: Western Cattle Egret by David Kennedy– Linyanti Swamps, Botswana – BirdPix No. 249235

The Western Cattle Egret is monotypic, meaning it lacks close relatives and has been placed in its own genus. They are not that closely related to other egrets.

Identification

The Western Cattle Egret is a conspicuous, largely all-white bird and is normally closely associated with cattle and large game animals.

It is the smallest of the white egrets and has a stocky build with a relatively short bill, neck and legs. They are all white when not breeding but develop buff-coloured plumes on the crown, mantle and breast. The bill colour varies from yellow to orange, and the legs are dull brownish to yellow. The sexes are alike.

Identification guide Western Cattle Egret
Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). Breeding adult.
George, Western Cape
Photo by Cobus Elstadt

Immature and juvenile birds are all-white and have black bills, legs and feet.

The Western Cattle Egret could be confused with the larger Intermediate Egret (Ardea intermedia), but that species is slimmer, with a longer-neck and a longer bill, and its lower legs are blackish, not yellowish. Little Egret differs from juveniles by having a more slender build and has black legs with bright yellow feet and a longer bill.

Cattle Egret
Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). Non-breeding adult.
Rondebosch, Western Cape
Photo by Les Underhill

Status and Distribution

The Western Cattle Egret has a very wide distribution and is found throughout the warmer regions of the world. The species was historically confined to tropical Africa, Madagascar and south-east Asia but it has expanded its range dramatically during the 20th century. The Western Cattle Egret now occurs throughout Africa, across the Mediterranean region, India, southern Asia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and North and South America!

Western Cattle Egret in breeding plumage
Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). Breeding Adult.
Louis Trichardt district, Limpopo
Photo by Megan Loftie-Eaton

A global increase in cattle farming, coupled with high breeding rates and effective dispersal and migration strategies, have enabled the species to undergo one of the most remarkable range expansions and population increases of any bird.

During the late late 1800s the Western Cattle Egret first began spreading throughout Africa and reached southern Europe by 1950. African birds are believed to have dispersed across the Atlantic Ocean to north-eastern South America in the 1880’s, reaching Alaska by 1981. Its range expansion across Asia to Australia and New Zealand took place in the 1940’s.

SABAP2 distribution map Western Cattle Egret
SABAP2 distribution map for Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis – February 2024.
Details for map interpretation can be found here.

The Cattle Egret is a very common resident or nomad and is found throughout southern Africa, but is sparse in the arid western regions. It is not threatened.

Habitat

Habitat Westrn Cattle Egret
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). Breeding Adult.
Karoo-Gariep Nature Reserve, Northern Cape
Photo by Les Underhill

The Cattle Egret inhabits open grassland, grassy savanna, floodplains, wetland fringes, semi-arid scrub, man-made pastures and agricultural lands. They are usually associated with large game mammals or domestic stock, especially cattle, buffalo and elephants. Western Cattle Egrets are also occasionally found on open seashores and avoid dense woodland, forest and desert. Roosts in trees or reedbeds in or near inland waters like marshes, rivers and dams..

Bubulcus ibis
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). Breeding Adult.
Franskraal district, Western Cape
Photo by Cobus Elstadt

Behaviour

Western Cattle Egrets are highly gregarious and are most often found in flocks of 10 to 20 birds. Birds usually gather in larger numbers at water in the late afternoon, before flying to their roosting site. They often roost communally with other water birds. In the morning they disperse up to 20 km away to its feeding grounds.

Bubulcus ibis
Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)
Baynesfield district, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Malcolm Robinson

Typically hunts by walking steadily before either running forward to stab at prey, or standing crouched, with its neck swaying before striking. They may glean items from vegetation, or seize flushed prey in the air. Small food items are swallowed whole, larger ones are repeatedly pecked or washed in water before swallowing.

Breeding adult Western Cattle Egret
Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). Breeding adult.
Hartbeespoort, North West
Photo by Mark Stanton

They will occasionally follow ploughs to seize disturbed invertebrates, but are far more often associated with mammals, ranging from cattle and other domestic livestock such as sheep and goats, to antelope, zebra, buffalo, rhinos and elephants.

They frequently perch on the backs of large mammals, particularly in tall grass, where visibility is poor.

Research has shown that by associating with mammals, and feeding on disturbed prey items, they obtain, on average, 37% more food than they would by foraging alone.

Western Cattle Egret, with a cow
Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). Breeding adult.
Thurlow Nature Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Malcolm Robinson

This egret’s diet consists largely of insects. Locusts and grasshoppers predominate, but a wide range of other invertebrates are consumed such as beetles, caterpillars, flies, spiders and earth worms. Ticks are also important in their diet and are mostly gleaned from vegetation but are sometimes also removed from large mammals. Vertebrates like frogs, tadpoles, fish, reptiles, small mammals, adult birds and nestlings are also eaten.

Bubulcus ibis, with zebras
Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)
South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
Photo by Derek Solomon

The Western Cattle Egret breeds throughout the year in South Africa. Breeding mainly takes place from August to February with a November/December peak in the summer rainfall regions. It breeds during winter in the winter rainfall region of the Western Cape.

It is a highly colonial breeder, often in mixed colonies with other species such as storks, herons, egrets, spoonbills and cormorants. The nest is a simple platform of sticks lined with leaves and grass. Nests are most frequently placed in trees but also in bushes or sometimes even on the ground.

Western Cattle Egret
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)
Kirkwood District, Eastern Cape
Photo by Irene Brown

Two to five eggs are laid per clutch. The eggs are dull white, sometimes with a blueish tinge and usually with some reddish-brown spots. The incubation period lasts for around 29 days and incubation duties are shared by both parents. Chicks are altricial and the nestlings are ready to leave the nest after 14 to 21 days. The young birds are fed and cared for by both parents.

Further Resources for the Western Cattle Egret

Species text adapted from the first Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1), 1997.

The use of photographs by Cobus Elstadt, David Kennedy, Derek Solomon, Irene Brown, Karis Daniel, Les Underhill, Malcolm Robinson, Mark Stanton and Megan Loftie-Eaton is acknowledged.

Virtual Museum (BirdPix > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name).

Other common names: Cattle Egret (Alternative English Name); Veereier, Springkaanvoel (Afrikaans); iLanda (Zulu); Dzandza (Tswana); Koereiger (Dutch); Héron garde-boeufs (French); Kuhreiher (German); Garça-boieira (Portuguese)

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2024. Western Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/2024/02/19/western-cattle-egret-bubulcus-ibis/

Bird identificationbirding

Western Cattle Egret, in flight
Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)
Greyton district, Western Cape
Photo by Karis Daniel
Ryan Tippett
Ryan Tippett
Ryan is an enthusiastic contributor to Citizen Science and has added many important and interesting records of fauna and flora. He has been a member of the Virtual Museum since 2014 and has currently submitted over 12,000 records. He is on the expert identification panel for the OdonataMAP project. Ryan is a well-qualified and experienced Field Guide, and Guide Training Instructor. He has spent the last 18 years in the guiding and tourism industries. Ryan loves imparting his passion and knowledge onto others, and it is this that drew him into guide training in particular. Something that he finds incredibly rewarding is seeing how people he's had the privilege of teaching have developed and gone on to greater things. His interests are diverse and include Dragonflies, Birding, Arachnids, Amphibians, wild flowers and succulents, free diving and experiencing big game on foot. With this range of interests, there is always likely be something special just around the corner!