The Cattle Egret – an African Survivor
While most animals find it difficult to compete with humanity and end up in danger due to habitat loss, one of nature's true survivors comes in the well-known shape of the cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis). This bird has managed to adapt to life alongside humankind and has not only survived, but also thrived under these circumstances.
Although the cattle egret was first described by Linnaeus in 1758, it only made an appearance in South Africa during 1908, first breeding in the Cape Province. The cattle egret has in fact become common wherever large grazing animals are found throughout the tropics, subtropics, and warm temperate zones, with the exception of Mauritius, where it was introduced without success.
Being an opportunistic feeder, the cattle egret is most often seen in the company of animals such as buffaloes, plains zebra, and wildebeest in the wild. During grazing activities, the large beasts churn up the ground to a degree, exposing organisms and insects in the soil below, which are eagerly snapped up by the waiting birds. They are also sometimes seen perched on top of these animals, helping themselves to any ticks they find. The presence of the birds does nothing to harm its hosts, and it is even believed that cattle egrets reduce the amount of flies found around these ungulates.
The bird is also known to eat spiders, frogs, worms and small animals and birds and is quite capable of foraging for itself. However, following the grazers around while they dig up dinner is far less labour intensive, and their preferred method of getting a quick meal.
Described as partially migratory, the bird usually prefers a year-round summer, flying off to warmer pastures in the wintertime. They lay their eggs wherever they may be at the time, between August and December in Southern Africa, in a roughly built nest consisting of sticks.
Between one and five chicks usually hatch, which compete ferociously for food, sometimes killing each other in the process. In fact the most common cause of mortality in the cattle egret is starvation due to sibling rivalry. Those chicks that do survive are ready to go their own way after a month and generally leave the nest after 45 days.
Despite being a commonly seen and not particularly striking bird, the cattle egret is remarkable for its staying power and adaptability in the wake of growing pastoralisation.