The sight of a lone Cattle Egret hunkered down in the middle of a S.E. Michigan field is an unusual one on several different levels. First of all, a lone hunkered cattle egret looks a bit weird. With shoulders hunched, neck withdrawn, and crest erected the thing looks more like a white penguin than a member of the noble egret clan. Secondly, Cattle Egrets are extremely social birds that like to do everything as a group. It’s unusual to see just one. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, they don’t really belong here in the first place.
Given the fact that these pint-sized egrets are originally from Asia, Africa and Europe, the appearance of one might seem more unusual than it really is. It seems that a few of these enterprising birds crossed the Atlantic over a century ago and set up shop in South America. Slowly but surely they advanced northward and made it to southern Florida by 1941. The first Michigan sighting was recorded back in the early 1960’s and in 1983 a pair of these ‘gerts actually nested along Saginaw Bay. They are now regular breeders in Ohio. So, although still considered rare in these parts, a few Cattle egrets have managed to put in a lower Michigan appearance nearly every year since that first step over the state line. This is, in fact, the second cattle egret I’ve seen this season. But, I’d have to go back over a decade and a half to list my last sighting.
This recent individual was dressed in his Sunday best outfit. The buffy patches on the crest, breast, and mid back indicate that this gent was expecting a few chicks to show up at the party. He was, in other words, sporting his breeding colors.
About the size of a glorified Herring Gull, this basically white bird possessed the long neck and legs typical of all egrets but he only extended those appendages when actively hunting (see above and here). Otherwise he chose to adopt the penguin pose. Unlike other egrets (such as the very common and much larger Great Egrets ), Cattle Egrets rarely eat fish. They prefer inhabiting grassy areas where they can pick away at insects and even small rodents kicked up by wandering herds of Cape Buffalo, Zebra, Gnus, and Wildebeest. In the absence of these traditional co-habitants, herds of cattle have been adopted for the purpose. There wasn’t a cow or a female egret to be found in this particular field on this particular day, so our bird looked out of sorts about the whole affair – not to mention rather miffed at my intrusion into his embarrassment.
Overcoming the cowless and gnu-less nature of the field, our fine tufted fellow spent the better part of the afternoon picking through the grass and gobbling up a few prizes along the way. He was gone by the following dawn so I can only assume that he moved on to better pastures – literally.