An Assigned Host for Each Bird
BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)
A “wading bird” that spends most of its time in bone-dry pastures surrounded by cattle often nowhere near water. How does this happen?
Most of the lean, lanky, long-legged birds in the world spend the majority of their daylight hours standing in shallow water, hunting for fish, frogs, crabs, or anything else they can spear with their sharp, pointed beaks. That’s why these birds are collectively called “wading birds”.
The one exception to this rule is the cattle egret, a wading bird that mostly stands around and feeds on dry land. In fact, driving along roads in central Florida’s cattle country, I often laugh out loud when I see how cattle egrets spread themselves out in a pasture — one cow, one bird – one cow, one bird – one-cow, one-bird – everywhere I look. It’s as if the cattle egrets have taken pity on the chunky bovines and each decided to adopt their own animal. Actually, this is – in a way – how it works.
A Cattle Egret stands beside “its cow”, waiting for the sturdy bovine to stir up tasty insects with its hooves. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)
As a cow grazes, it stirs up insects and small vertebrates – toads and salamanders – with its hooves which each “assigned egret” eagerly grabs up and gobbles down. In return, each egret periodically jumps onto the back of its designated cow “host” to pick and eat parasites off its head and body. Known as a “mutualistic” relationship, both the cows and the egrets benefit from having each other around while neither one is harmed by the interaction.
Showing off their adaptive “smarts”, cattle egrets have also learned to flock toward the smoke of a grassland fire. They’ve learned that where there’s fire, there will also be millions of tasty insects fleeing the flames.
The cattle egret is a cosmopolitan species of the heron family found throughout the tropics, subtropics, and warm temperate zones of the world. Adult birds are all white except for washes of buff feathers during the nesting season. Due to its close relationship with humans and their cattle, the cattle egret has undergone one of the most wide-reaching expansions of any bird species in the world. Anywhere livestock owners – from nomadic herdsmen to today’s massive agri-business operations – moved, cattle egrets followed closely behind. Global population estimates for cattle egrets now exceed five million birds.
An adult cattle egret lands in a rookery near St. Augustine Beach, Florida. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)
Relatively new arrivals to North America, cattle egrets didn’t nest in the United States until 1953. During the next 50 years, these birds spread rapidly northward to become one of the most abundant wading birds on the continent. Now found from Alaska to Newfoundland, cattle egrets nest from Florida to California and almost every state in between.
Cattle egrets nest in colonies, which are usually located over bodies of water. They build small, untidy platform nests out of sticks in trees or large shrubs. Clutch sizes vary from one to five eggs with three to four being most common.
Randomly-feathered at birth, cattle egret chicks often look like Phyllis Diller on a “bad hair day”. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)
Like many “ugly ducklings”, however, these unusual wading birds mature into lovely adults that enhance the pastoral beauty of our Nation’s pasturelands. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)
Text excerpted from book: BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press).
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.