Cattle egrets have white feathers, with a reddishyellow crown, breast and back. They have a shorter bill than most egrets. During the breeding season their legs become bright yellow, but outside this time they are black. Due to their extensive range there are several subspecies, each having small differences in appearance.
In most regions these birds migrate long distances and birds have been recorded as far outside their normal range as the Antarctic and Iceland. Cattle egrets are quiet birds, with no special calls when flying or in groups. During the breeding season they make a husky “rick-rack” sound.
These colonial birds will form large groups for breeding. They construct their nest in reeds, bushes and trees over or next to water. They build a nest of twigs and plants that can sometimes be up to 20 metres above the ground. Cattle egrets usually raise only one clutch of eggs a year, but in areas with plenty of food they can raise up to three clutches.
They are opportunistic foragers, taking advantage of prey disturbed by large mammals. These birds will hunt for insects and other small invertebrates, but also take larger prey such as crayfish, snakes, frogs, fish and even the chicks of other bird species.
These birds are classed as Least Concern due to their large range, but are threatened by habitat loss and in some regions they are hunted for use in traditional medicines. As they flock in large numbers they are sometimes considered a pest and are persecuted.