This smallest white heron has a compact shape because of its short neck and relatively short legs, both of which suit its terrestrial feeding habits. The bill is short too, only just longer than the length of the head. A bird of farm fields, pastures, and grassy roadsides, it takes grasshoppers, crickets, and frogs and sometimes follows grazing cattle or tractors to feed on the displaced prey. It is the only species in its genus in the world, and the only North American heron in which the color of the plumage changes seasonally. Prior to 1950, Cattle Egrets were unknown in North America, but today they are quite widespread across the Lower 48 and into southern Canada. Their colonization of North America was perhaps initially fed by east winds carrying these birds from North Africa across the Atlantic to the southern Caribbean (Barbados is often the first point of land encountered by such birds, and from there they could have spread north).
Adults: Breeding adults are distinctive, white overall but with rich buff orange on the head, neck, and scapulars, and orange bare parts. How these orange areas become orange is mysterious (perhaps it is topically administered), but the coloration is not a result of molt. Rarely, richly colored aberrant birds occur with extensive orange, blue-gray, or even blackish areas instead of the normal peach buff. Nonbreeding adults are wholly white, lack the orange patches, have yellower (less orange) bills, and have blackish legs.
© The Dynamic Spectrum Photography Group