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Cattle companions: Cattle Egrets

By Les Harrison
Extension Director Emeritus UF/IFAS Special to The Star

Few experiences in life are as comforting as having a companion who answers needs and is there to serve without being summoned. Ideally, the relationship benefits both parties, each providing something needed and each receiving enough through their service to engender continuation of the bond.  

In many cases this reciprocal arrangement is a lifelong relationship.  The individuals are never far apart and it is an exception to see one without the other close by.   

This interdependent commitment occasionally works with people, but the complications of life often interfere with the single mindedness required to fulfill the promise. Fortunately for Gulf County’s horse and cattle owners, there is a mutual agreement between livestock and cattle egrets which is a textbook example of a win-win relationship. 

Cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis) are a white bird with red to orange tinged feathers on their back, breast and the top of the heads.  They are a common sight in north Florida’s fields and pastures, especially if livestock are present.  

Large adults can be about two feet in height with a wingspan of about three feet.  Usually silent, they can utter a guttural call which is usually associated with breading season. 

This bird is a relatively recent arrival in Florida.  It is believed to have migrated to Brazil from sub-Saharan Africa in the 1930’s.   

Like many exotic species which have landed in South America, it adapted well to conditions there and moved north to expand its range.  Cattle egrets crossed into Florida in the early 1950’s and now reside here year around. 

While technically an exotic species, they are not considered an invasive exotic.  Cattle egrets do compete with other wading birds for nesting sites, but the greatest concern to this native population is habitat loss.  

The cattle egret’s closest avian relatives are herons. There are recorded incidents of cattle egrets occasionally cross breeding with herons. 

While they will search for food by wading in shallow waters, the cattle egret is are more likely to be view on wide open expanses of land.  If horses, sheep, goats or cattle are present it is almost a guarantee these insect eating birds will be in action next to the group.  

They quickly establish a symbiotic relationship with the livestock. Somehow these birds communicate their intentions to consume any and all of the flies and ticks which prey upon the local grazing herds. 

The cattle egrets serenely stroll through the grass in and around the stock, all the while plucking bugs with their long pointed bills.  Occasionally, cattle egrets can be seen standing on the back of horses and cattle grooming the animal, which is likely a much appreciated pest control service. 

Cattle egrets are often seen around grazing livestock. These brood cows accept the egret’s close proximity, likely knowing their feathered friends feast on many irritating insects which trouble all foraging animals

Cattle ranchers and hay producers watch for swarming flocks of cattle egrets in the late summer.  These ravenous birds have the acute eyesight to spot armyworm infestations hidden in hayfields and pasture.  

Hundreds of birds will circle and dive at their prospective targets in a fashion reminiscent of the most gluttonous feeding frenzy imaginable. The soft bodied worms are easy picking, and farmers and ranchers appreciate the effort at removing a dreaded pest.   

It may not be expressed in words, but it is likely most livestock in the Port St. Joe and Wewahitchka area consider the cattle egret a good companion.  Farmers and ranchers certainly appreciate the egret’s work. 

To learn more about cattle egrets in the Gulf County region, contact the nearest UF/IFAS County Extension Office or visit https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/find-your-local-office/. To read more stories by Les Harrison visit: Outdoorauthor.com.