Cattle Egrets, Hawaiian Style
Cattle Egrets in Hawaii
Cattle Egrets are of the Order: Ciconiiformes, Family: Ardeidae and therefore are related to the Great Blue Heron, the Little Blue Heron, the Snowy Egret and the Black-Crowned Night Heron. Yet whenever I see a Cattle Egret, my first thought goes to their resemblance to the stork in the Walt Disney movie, Dumbo. Life just feels that happy when I see one of these very elegant fellows. They put one red leg forward and then stretch their neck forward, too. Then they put their other foot forward while their curved neck goes backwards and then forward again.
Recently I read somewhere that Cattle Egrets are the most migrated bird on the earth. Apparently, the Mallard Duck is a close tie, but the ducks have had help from humans in their migration. I don't know exactly what that means or how that transpires. Perhaps Ducks Unlimited flies cargo holds of Mallards into various swamps all over the United States so the hunters can be ready to shoot them on sight. I was very disappointed when I found out a couple years ago that the people who organized and now administer Ducks Unlimited are all about hunting. You know -- that sport where the creature with the higher intelligence holds a gun and chases an animal or hides and gets the animal in his sights and then this so-called higher-in-intelligence entity violently kills the defenseless animal. Yes, it's called a sport. This somehow makes the intelligent human being feel very good. But I digress.
The cattle egrets originally were in Asia and Africa. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the birds migrated to the Americas in the 1800's. They have now bred in all fifty states. They have migrated to most areas of the world. Wherever you live, you probably see them in your neighborhood.
Cattle egrets are completely white unless it is breeding season. Then the male has reddish colored plumage on his head and chest. The adult birds are approximately 18 to 22 inches in length and have a wingspan of 34 to 37 inches. They look purposeful as they glide together in groups of four or five.
Here on Maui, we have the continual burning of sugar cane throughout eight months of the year. These cattle egret birds will fly great distances in flocks toward the smoke, so they can feed on the insects that are running for their lives. As the locals here say, "When there is a 'burn' the ground looks like it's moving."
The ornithologists call these birds opportunistic.
The first time I noticed cattle egrets was when I saw a flock of them down in a soccer field, following a ride-on lawnmower. They were enjoying a feast of freshly disturbed Hawaiian delicacies such as cockroaches and slugs, no doubt. They aren't known for eating the 12-inch long centipedes that the chickens enjoy here, but if hungry enough, these egrets will eat a small bird. I was surprised and dismayed to learn that. It's almost one-hundredth as bad as the hunter with his gun -- and it is rare.
Congregating at the beach park.
Cattle Egrets are very Polite
These slim, light birds follow the dozens of tractors in the cane fields every morning and land behind the wheels to feed. When the tractor makes a turn, they rise in flight and position themselves behind the tractor again so they can continue their buffet feasting.
In the late afternoon, these birds congregate together, strolling the beach parks, watching the humans while the humans watch them. At sunset, the cattle egrets fly away appearing as paper tole designs against a mauve mottled sky. Each one flies to their own specific tree. They seem to prefer trees that border ponds on golf courses. I have seen videos of Maui's cattle egrets roosting in trees so numerously that the trees look completely white. Three hundred egrets sleeping in one tree is quite a sight.
They are called cattle egrets because -- if given the opportunity -- each bird likes to ride on the back or the shoulders of a cow or a steer while the beast moves forward through the grass, disturbing the insects and causing the insects to fly up. In the upcountry of Maui, these birds do ride on the shoulders of the cattle. In countries around the world, cattle egrets hop on any broad-shouldered, lumbering, large animal who looks safe enough to help scare up some dinner.
My favorite time to see these beautiful egrets here on Maui is when I am in my car, stopped at a red light in traffic alongside a hedge of Bougainvilleas. These Bougainvillea hedges are commonly planted down the median of the roadways. An egret will walk up and down the top of the hedge just 36 inches from my shoulder and will look me in the eye.
"Howzit?" he says.
"Aloha, I am well. And you?" I reply.
The light turns green and we nod goodbye to one another.