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Ospreys are an indicator species. The health of their population has implications for the health our coastal ecosystems.

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New Jersey Endangered and Threatened Species Field Guide


Image of An adult cattle egret in breeding plumage.Zoom+ An adult cattle egret in breeding plumage. Image courtesy of Flickr user Larry Meade.

Cattle egret

Bubulcus ibis

Species Group: Bird

Conservation Status

State: Threatened (Breeding)

 


IDENTIFICATION

A small, stocky, white wading bird. It has a short, thick neck and a relatively short and stocky bill. Its legs are long but relatively short compared to most wading birds. Both the male and female look similar. Breeding adults have buff-orange plumes on their crown, lower back, and lower neck.

Image of Range of the cattle egret in New Jersey.Zoom+ Range of the cattle egret in New Jersey.

DISTRIBUTION AND HABITAT

This species is not native to North America. However, it was not introduced by humans like most non-native species have been. A native of Africa, it began colonizing the Western Hemisphere in the 1930s through its own efforts, flying across the Atlantic Ocean. It first colonized the West Indies and South America. By 1941, cattle egrets had colonized Florida and were in New Jersey by the 1950s.

Cattle egrets can now be found throughout much of the US, southern Canada, Mexico, the West Indies, and South America. During the winter, they migrate from the northern reaches of their range. Cattle egrets only occur in New Jersey during the summer and then winter in the southern US or the West Indies.

Cattle egrets are considered the most terrestrial of the herons and egrets. They prefer agricultural areas (especially wet pastureland) and marshy areas. They nest in trees or shrubs near water, often with other species of heron and egret.

In New Jersey, cattle egrets nest within marshland along the coast from Cape May in the south to Barnegat Bay in the north. They also nest on small islands within the Arthur Kill, between Union County and Staten Island.

DIET

Cattle egrets feed primarily on insects and other invertebrates. They will also eat small reptiles and rodents. They often find prey after it has been flushed by cattle, horses, or farm equipment.

LIFE CYCLE

Cattle egrets nest in colonies which also often contain nests of other species of heron and egret. The breeding season begins between March and mid-April. The male brings nesting material to the female and she constructs the nest.

4-5 eggs are usually laid and incubation by both parents lasts between 21-25 days. Both parents care for the young. After 40 days, the young are ready to fly and by about 60 days, they are ready to be independent. The nesting season usually ends by mid-September.

CURRENT STATUS, THREATS, AND CONSERVATION

The cattle egret’s range expansion into the Western Hemisphere has slowed or stopped. Major population declines have been observed in the Northeast US since the population’s peak in the 1970s and early 1980s. While the exact reasons for this are unknown, it is likely that the loss of agricultural land, especially pastureland, has played a major role in their decline.

Because of the species’ population decline and habitat loss within the state, the New Jersey Endangered and Nongame Species Program listed the cattle egret as a threatened species in 2012. Their distribution and nesting success in the state will need to be closely monitored in order to determine whether the population is continuing to decline and if so, by how much. Conservation and restoration of farmland will be essential to their long-term survival in the state.


Text written by Michael J. Davenport in 2011 and updated in 2012.


Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia
    Phylum: Chordata
       Class: Aves
          Order: Ciconiformes
             Family: Ardeidae
                Genus: Bubulcus
                   Species: B. ibis

Find Related Info: Special concern

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