Bison Bird?

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks of Romeo. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I can’t attest to how a cattle egret might smell, but no matter which of several common names you call Bubulcus ibis, it is one sweet bird.

Its common name in North America is cattle egret. This picture I took at Midewin today provides pretty good evidence why. They feast on insects stirred up by grazing animals, frequently perching on their backs as they await a meal.

This is probably a trick – or adaptation – they learned in Africa, where the species originated. There, cattle egrets are known as elephant birds, or rhinoceros egrets or hippopotamus egrets. Their arabic name, Abu Querdan, means father of ticks, a name given in the misbelief that this species pick ticks off the backs of its grazing herbivores.

In Europe, cattle egrets are known as buff-backed herons for the patches of buff color on their backsides (not to mention their bellies and their head crests.) This – in addition to their smaller size – is one of the easiest ways of distinguishing them from great egrets, also present at Midewin.

Great egrets are larger than cattle egrets, and lack their buffy markings.

Cattle egrets are not all that common at Midewin. According to ebird, the first one was sighted there in 1996. I first glimpsed one in 2011, and then not again until today.

There are quite a few cattle at Midewin. At least for now. Cattle are a kind of stop gap measure until Midewin can be fully restored. Rather than let the former ag and arsenal lands go fallow, grazed pasturelands actually provide pretty good grassland bird habitat – a major management objective at Midewin. Additionally, pasture leases provide additional income that gets channeled back into restoration.

Dickcissels are among the grassland bird species that benefit from grazed pasturelands.

One day, once all the land is restored and the cattle leases expired, will Midewin’s cattle egrets adapt to become bison birds? As a species, cattle egrets did not co-evolve with American bison. Native to Africa, cattle egrets managed to find their way to South America in 1877, and then worked their way northward to the United States by 1941 – long after the storied bison herds of the 1800s had been eliminated.

A quick Google search already reveals that cattle egrets are adopting to bison just fine elsewhere. After all, how hard can it be to ride a bison once you’ve mastered elephants, rhinos, hippos, and bare-backed moo-cows?

A Tale of Two Aliens

OK. So I’m a bird snob. I admit it. Aside from the occasional cardinal, mourning dove or goldfinch – or once in a blue moon, some passing-through warbler – the only birds to visit my backyard pond are house sparrows and starlings. The avian equivalents of garlic mustard and buckthorn.

house sparrow with stop sign I admit I harbor deeply unpleasant thoughts about the house sparrow. The first 50 pairs of this Eurasian-originated bird were intentionally released in Brooklyn, NY in 1851. Within two decades, the house sparrow was the most populous bird species in Illinois and many other states. As early as 1891, Illinois put a bounty on the head of this noisy, obnoxious bird for its devouring of livestock feed and decimation of many native bird species. Sadly, it didn’t work.

Even as I write this, a specimen of this Satan species is perched just outside my window, its incessantly repetitive shrieks of a call like having a gym teacher from hell blowing short, sharp whistle bursts directly in your ear every two seconds.

Deeply unpleasant thoughts.

And so I escape as often as I can to Midewin, to bask in the company of birds. Native birds. Midewin is big enough and diverse enough in its habitats – even at this early stage of recovery – to accommodate lots of different kinds of native birds. I’ve seen more than 100 different species so far this year. Many of them at risk because of non-native species, both plants and birds.

Yes, there are non-native birds at Midewin, too. Like starlings, for instance. First released in America in 1890 by some New Yorkers obsessed with introducing all of the bird species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare, this species expanded into Illinois by 1922 and today effectively saturates the entire state.

During spring and fall, you’re likely to find them in great, locust-like swarms.

At Midewin, starlings flock around the cows. Or, more accurately, around the cow pies, feasting on the bugs they attract. ‘Zounds, what would Shakespeare think of that?

While the debate around the issue of native vs. non-native (or exotic or alien) species is a complex and often heated one, for me, the key difference between the two is naturally-introduced vs. introduced by humans. In contrast to house sparrows and European starlings, the cattle egret made it to Midewin all on its own. Native to subtropical Africa and Asia, this species found its evolutionary niche in foraging in the wake of zebras, wildebeests and other large mammals.

With the spread of domesticated cattle herding, the eponymously-named cattle egret greatly expanded its territory on it own. It first made it to North American shores in 1941. Today, this smallest of our “native” egrets, is found at Midewin.

cattle egret 3As widespread as the cattle egret has become, it doesn’t cause crop damage, as do sparrows and starlings. It doesn’t compete with native bird species, such as bluebirds and woodpeckers, leading to their demise. In fact, this morning, while monitoring grassland birds, I enjoy watching an evolutionary symbiotic relationship unfold: a cattle egret nipping insects directly from the hides of the local herd. While starlings pick their vittles out of the poop.