Species Profile and Threats Database

For information to assist proponents in referral, environmental assessments and compliance issues, refer to the Policy Statements and Guidelines (where available), the Conservation Advice (where available) or the Listing Advice (where available).
In addition, proponents and land managers should refer to the Recovery Plan (where available) or the Conservation Advice (where available) for recovery, mitigation and conservation information.

EPBC Act Listing Status Listed marine as Ardea ibis
Listed migratory - CAMBA as Ardeola ibis, JAMBA as Bubulcus ibis
Adopted/Made Recovery Plans
Other EPBC Act Plans Threat Abatement Plan for predation by feral cats (Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA), 2008zzp) [Threat Abatement Plan].
Federal Register of
    Legislative Instruments
List of Migratory Species (13/07/2000) (Commonwealth of Australia, 2000b) [Legislative Instrument] as Ardeola ibis.
Declaration under section 248 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 - List of Marine Species (Commonwealth of Australia, 2000c) [Legislative Instrument] as Ardea ibis.
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 - Update of the List of Migratory Species (12/03/2009) (Commonwealth of Australia, 2009q) [Legislative Instrument] as Bubulcus ibis.
State Listing Status
SA: Listed as Rare (National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 (South Australia): Rare species: June 2011 list) as Ardea ibis
Scientific name Ardea ibis [59542]
Family Ardeidae:Ardeiformes:Aves:Chordata:Animalia
Species author Linnaeus, 1758
Infraspecies author  
Other names Ardeola ibis [1000]
Bubulcus ibis [66521]
Distribution map Species Distribution Map

This is an indicative distribution map of the present distribution of the species based on best available knowledge. See map caveat for more information.

Illustrations Google Images

Scientific name: Ardea ibis

Common name: Cattle Egret

Other names: Buff-backed Heron (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

The Cattle Egret was formerly known as Bubulcus ibis.

The Cattle Egret, Ardea ibis, is a small member of the Ardeidae family. The wingspan and weight vary between sexes; males have a wingspan of 91 cm and weight of 390 g, while the females have a wingspan of 88 cm and weight of 340 g. The length of both sexes is around 70 cm (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

The Cattle Egret is small, stocky and mostly white with a short neck and stout yellow-red bill. During breeding and courtship the species has a heavy jowl, orange-buff crown, neck, breast and mantle. There is a marked seasonal variation in plumages during the breeding and non-breeding seasons. The name Cattle Egret comes from its association with cattle; namely its habit of eating ticks and flies off the backs of livestock (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

The juveniles are indistinguishable from non-breeding adults; however, towards the end of their first year they may develop coloration during the breeding season (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

General distribution
The Cattle Egret is widespread and common according to migration movements and breeding localities surveys. Two major distributions have been located; from north-east Western Australia to the Top End of the Northern Territory and around south-east Australia. In Western Australia and the Northern Territory, the Cattle Egret is located from Wyndham to Arnhem Land. In south-east Australia it is found from Bundaberg, inland to Roma, Thargominda, and then down through Inverell, Walgett, Nyngan, Cobar, Ivanhoe, Balranald to Swan Hill, and then west to Pinnaroo and Port Augusta (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

Location of breeding population
The Cattle Egret breeds in colonies, either mono-specific or with other Egrets/Herons. In Australia the principal breeding sites are the central east coast from about Newcastle to Bundaberg. It also breeds in major inland wetlands in north NSW (notably the Macquarie Marshes). Breeding colonies have also been observed at Wyndham, Western Australia to Arnhem Land, Northern Territory (mainly in the North West of the Top End; 13 colonies near the Northern Territory coast have been surveyed; Chatto 2000). There are also isolated minor colonies recorded elsewhere, particularly from Ayr to Rockhampton in Queensland, the Murray River district of Victoria and Lakes Albert-Alexandrina in South Australia (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

Location of non-breeding population
Non-breeding Cattle Egret may remain in breeding areas, but most migrate elsewhere. The total non-breeding range comprises east and south Australia from the far north-east of Queensland to Tasmania and the Eyre Peninsula, South Australia. In inland regions it extends to the eastern parts of the Murray-Darling Basin. It is found in the north of the Northern Territory, the south-west and north-east Kimberley region, Western Australia and the far south-west coastal areas of Western Australia. Vagrants have been recorded elsewhere including central Australia (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

Occurrence in Commonwealth areas
The Cattle Egret occurs or is likely to occur in many Commonwealth areas such as Kakadu in the Northern Territory. It is a regular on Norfolk Island, and an accidental on Cocos-Keeling Island. There are many sightings on sub-antarctic islands (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

The Cattle Egret was originally native to Africa, south-west Europe, and Asia. Originally the bird's Asian distribution was from Pakistan, south to Sri Lanka, north to the Himalayas and east to Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. Since 1877 the Cattle Egret has undergone a massive range expansion. Initially arriving in South America, the species is now found throughout South America, Central America and the United States. The bird also extends into Canada (Pitt & Witmer 2006). In 1959 the species was introduced to Hawaii to help control flies around homes and cattle pasture; they were introduced to the Frigate and Praslin islands for similar reasons. The birds range continues to expand, particularly around the Pacific basin. According to the IUCN Red List (Birdlife International 2009e), the Cattle Egret is found in the following countries:

Algeria, Angola, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Benin, Bermuda, Bhutan, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Cape Verde, Cayman Islands, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, China, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Colombia, Comoros, Congo, Congo; The Democratic Republic of the, Costa Rica, Côte d'Ivoire, Cuba, Cyprus, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Falkland Islands (Malvinas), France, French Guiana, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Ghana, Gibraltar, Greece, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guam, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran; Islamic Republic of, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Korea; Democratic People's Republic of, Korea, Republic of; Kuwait, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Marshall Islands, Martinique, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mayotte, Mexico, Micronesia; Federated States of, Montenegro, Montserrat, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, Netherlands Antilles, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Northern Mariana Islands, Oman, Pakistan, Palau, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Réunion, Romania, Russian Federation, Rwanda, Saint Helena, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sao Tomé and Principe, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Somalia, South Africa, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Swaziland, Syrian Arab Republic, Taiwan, Tanzania, United Republic of, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Turks and Caicos Islands, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United States, United States Minor Outlying Islands, Uruguay, Venezuela, Viet Nam, Virgin Islands, British; Virgin Islands, U.S., Western Sahara, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

Albania, Antarctica, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christmas Island, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, the former Yugoslav Republic of; Malta, New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, Norway, Poland, Qatar, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, United Kingdom, Uzbekistan.

The population estimate for Australia, New Guinea and New Zealand is 100 000 birds (Maddock & Geering 1994). There has been no systematic survey for the whole continent.

The Cattle Egret is a relatively recent colonist of Australia from Asia. The first documented natural occurrence was in the Northern Territory in 1948 (Deignan 1964), since which much of the country has been colonised (Marchant & Higgins 1990). The trend suggests an ongoing increase in range and population; however, there is no systematic information (no base-line or long-term monitoring) over the whole of the species' range in Australia. The population in a small region of east Australia has been covered in annual aerial surveys by the NSW National Parks since about 1983, indicating a clear increasing trend. The species uses northern sites erratically, often in large numbers, thus hindering the analysis of monitoring data (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

Typical habitat
The Cattle Egret occurs in tropical and temperate grasslands, wooded lands and terrestrial wetlands. It has occasionally been seen in arid and semi-arid regions however this is extremely rare. High numbers have been observed in moist, low-lying poorly drained pastures with an abundance of high grass; it avoids low grass pastures. It has been recorded on earthen dam walls and ploughed fields. It is commonly associated with the habitats of farm animals, particularly cattle, but also pigs, sheep, horses and deer. The Cattle Egret is known to follow earth-moving machinery and has been located at rubbish tips. It uses predominately shallow, open and fresh wetlands including meadows and swamps with low emergent vegetation and abundant aquatic flora. They have sometimes been observed in swamps with tall emergent vegetation (Marchant & Higgins 1990; Morton et al. 1989).

Habitat for feeding
The Cattle Egret often forages away from water on low lying grasslands, improved pastures and croplands. It is commonly found in cattle fields and other farm areas that contain livestock. The Cattle Egret has also been observed foraging in rubbish tips. It is becoming more frequent in drier regions; consuming the ticks of livestock in the absence of other food sources. This inland spread is believed to be due to the construction of artificial waterways (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

Habitat for roosting
The Cattle Egret roosts in trees, or amongst ground vegetation in or near lakes and swamps. It has also been recorded roosting near human settlement and industrial areas in Murwillumbah, NSW (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

Micro-habitat needed for breeding
The Cattle Egret breeds in colonies in wooded swamps such as mangrove forests (e.g. the lower Adelaide River, Northern Territory), Melaleuca swamps (e.g. Shortland, NSW) and the eucalypt/lignum swamps of the Murray-Darling Basin. They may breed in artificial situations or close to urban areas; generally the nesting trees are inundated except where breeding on small islands. Nests are sited usually in middle to upper branches (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

Known threats to this micro-habitat or to breeding success
Threats to breeding habitat include: river regulation and water harvest that prevent or limit flooding of temporary wetlands (including wooded swamps); loss of wetlands through drainage; and loss of perennial emergent vegetation in wetlands used for breeding. Nestlings presumably are vulnerable to many predators (e.g. cats, corvids, kookaburras) and to food shortages especially in inland colonies (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

Breeding behaviours that may make the species vulnerable
Colonial breeding (i.e. at a relatively small number of sites through the species' range) inherently makes the species vulnerable (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

Breeding period
East coast colonies operate in a well defined period from October to January, occasionally extending by a month either side. In the Northern Territory, Top End colonies operate mainly November to February with smaller numbers breeding at other times (Chatto 2000).

Conditions needed for breeding
The Cattle Egret requires the availability of food for nestlings at nest sites. Regular breeding period (despite irregular inundation) and wide use of dryland feeding areas suggests this species is less dependent on those conditions than many other waterbirds (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

The Cattle Egret feeds mostly on grasshoppers during the breeding season. It is, however, known to consume other insects including cicadas, centipedes, spiders, cattle ticks, frogs (including cane toads), lizards (particularly skinks) and small mammals (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

The Cattle Egret usually follows cattle, horses, sheep, goats and other large animals. They snap up insects or worms disturbed by the trampling of the animals. They also use cattle as a vantage point to trap insects in their wings. They are valued by farmers as they are an effective way of managing ectoparasites in livestock (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

When foraging on the ground they search for prey with their necks stretched either vertically or horizontally. They sometimes sway their necks from side to side before lunging at prey. They are known to eat insects from long grass (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

Australian movement
In Australia the Cattle Egret is a partial migrant; some of the population migrates to New Zealand, while the remainder migrates locally. The birds migrate from breeding colonies in south-east Queensland and north-east NSW to spend winter in either south-east Australia or New Zealand. In north and west Australia the movement is not as well known as that of the east and south. The birds are recorded during all months in the Northern Territory; however, they are less abundant from February to May, immediately after breeding. Some are believed to migrate to south-west Western Australia, arriving from April. Surveys indicate the Cattle Egret is a migrant to New Guinea during the dry season. It is believed to depart from both the Northern Territory and north-east Queensland. The bird is also known to move east from the Northern Territory to Queensland (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

New Zealand movement
The Cattle Egret is known to follow ships across the Tasman, to New Zealand, from early March. They arrive in New Zealand from early April to May, making landfall on the west coast. They remain on the west coast for several weeks before moving to farmland to spend the winter. They depart from October, with most leaving in November. Small numbers have been known to stay in New Zealand over the summer, however, none of these populations attempt to breed. Surveys of wing tagged birds show that most New Zealand migrants originate from north-east NSW and south-east Queensland (Marchant & Higgins 1990).

The major threats facing the Cattle egret are (Birdlife International 2009e):

  • persecution of large colonies in urban areas
  • loss of breeding habitats through wetland degradation and destruction
  • hunting, particularly in Nigeria where the bird is sold at traditional medicine markets.

In some areas of the world the Cattle Egret is considered a pest (Pitt & Witmer 2006). They consume small vertebrates, including endangered species. Research has been conducted into methods for removing the birds from unwanted locations. These include, shooting, trapping, and netting. In many countries the Cattle Egret is classed as a non-game bird and receives protection under federal laws (Pitt & Witmer 2006).

In Australia exotic species, especially Feral Cats ( Felis catus), is a major threat for many native birds. Cats are distributed across the entire country (including islands off the mainland). Due to their agility, climbing ability and stealthy characteristics they are able to seek prey in a diverse range of habitats. The Cattle Egret roosts both in trees and on the ground in vegetation, making it particularly susceptible to predation by cats. The Threat Abatement Plan for predation by feral cats (DEWHA 2008zzp) aims to protect affected wildlife and ecological communities as well as prevent more species and communities becoming vulnerable to the threat (DEWHA 2008zzp).

The following table lists known and perceived threats to this species. Threats are based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) threat classification version 1.1.

Threat Class Threatening Species References
Ecosystem/Community Stresses:Ecosystem Degradation:Decline in habitat quality Ardea ibis in Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006be) [Internet].
Invasive and Other Problematic Species and Genes:Invasive and Other Problematic Species and Genes:unspecified Ardea ibis in Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006be) [Internet].
Natural System Modifications:Dams and Water Management/Use:Alteration of hydrological regimes and water quality Ardea ibis in Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006be) [Internet].
Natural System Modifications:Dams and Water Management/Use:Changes in hydrology including habitat drainage Ardea ibis in Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006be) [Internet].

BirdLife International (2009e). Bubulcus ibis. In: IUCN 2009. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2009.2. Bubulcus ibis. [Online]. IUCN.

Chatto, R. (2000). Waterbird breeding colonies in the Top End of the Northern Territory. Parks & Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory Technical Report. 69.

Deignan, H.G. (1964). Birds of the Arnhem Land Expedition. Records of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. In: Specht, R.L. (Ed.)., ed. Zoology. Volume:345-426. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) (2008zzp). Threat Abatement Plan for predation by feral cats. [Online]. Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. Available from:

Maddock, M. & D. Geering (1994). Range expansion and migration of the Cattle Egret. Ostrich. 65:191-203.

Marchant, S. & P.J. Higgins (1990). Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Volume One - Ratites to Ducks. Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press.

Morton, S.R., K.G. Brennan & M.D. Armstrong (1989). Distribution and Abundance of Waterbirds in the Alligator Rivers Region, Northern Territory. Volume 1.

Pitt, W. & G. Witmer (2006). Invasive Predators: a synthesis of the past, present and future. In: USDA National Wildlife Research Centre-Staff Publications.

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This database is designed to provide statutory, biological and ecological information on species and ecological communities, migratory species, marine species, and species and species products subject to international trade and commercial use protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act). It has been compiled from a range of sources including listing advice, recovery plans, published literature and individual experts. While reasonable efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of the information, no guarantee is given, nor responsibility taken, by the Commonwealth for its accuracy, currency or completeness. The Commonwealth does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage that may be occasioned directly or indirectly through the use of, or reliance on, the information contained in this database. The information contained in this database does not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth. This database is not intended to be a complete source of information on the matters it deals with. Individuals and organisations should consider all the available information, including that available from other sources, in deciding whether there is a need to make a referral or apply for a permit or exemption under the EPBC Act.

Citation: Department of the Environment (2014). Ardea ibis in Species Profile and Threats Database, Department of the Environment, Canberra. Available from: Accessed Fri, 19 Sep 2014 23:43:32 +1000.