An unusual Cattle Egret in Florida 

In late April 2012, Roy Halpin found and photographed an entirely buff-colored Cattle Egret in Saint Augustine, Florida. This is a particularly interesting bird because it provides an opportunity to consider the unusual nature of Cattle Egret coloration, as well as the identification of Cattle Egret subspecies.

Buff-colored Cattle Egret, photographed at the Gator Farm in Saint Augustine Florida, 27 April 2012, copyright Roy Halpin.

Coloration in Cattle Egrets

To understand this bird’s coloration, it’s important to understand the unusual source of the buff color in Cattle Egrets. Evidence suggests that the buff color of Cattle Egrets is essentially a stain, coming from pigmented oil from specialized powder-down feathers (Delhey et al, 2007). When a Cattle Egret molts in late summer the new feathers are all-white, and they slowly turn buff in winter and spring without molting.

I don’t think the Saint Augustine bird is stained by some man-made chemical because the color of the head and back plumes looks typical for Cattle Egret, and because the color is so smooth and uniform throughout, including even the underwing coverts. I will speculate that this bird is over-producing the oils from powder-down, and coloring the whole plumage. The darker color on the wing coverts could be the result of the pigmented oil interacting with differently-textured feathers there.

Obviously there is a lot more to learn about Cattle Egrets and the details of their coloration. If this individual can be refound and photographed at different seasons or in subsequent years that might offer some clues, and looking for similar anomalies in other Cattle Egrets could add important clues. I can’t help but wonder if the dark Cattle Egrets discussed in a previous post here are related in some way to anomalies of powder-down coloration.

Identification issues

First, this is clearly a Cattle Egret, despite the unusual coloration. There is no other small egret that could be confused with it, and no hybrid combination that would account for the color. It is simply a Cattle Egret with a lot of buff color.

Identifying the subspecies is another matter. The Asian subspecies of Cattle Egret is distinguished from the African/American subspecies primarily by its more extensive (and darker) buff color on the neck and body. This subspecies has been recommended for full-species status, and has occurred in the western Aleutians. It is a potential vagrant anywhere in North America, and a potential species and therefore would be of great interest to birders here.

Briefly, the Asian subspecies B. i. coromandus differs from the common American/African subspecies B. i. ibis in the following ways:

  • buff color is more extensive, covering the entire neck, but leaving the face and most of the body white
  • the buff color is distinctly darker, more cinnamon-orange, rather than the pale frosty pinkish-buff of ibis
  • overall size averages slightly larger
  • bill averages slightly heavier and longer
  • legs average slightly longer

Differences in size and proportions are slight and overlapping, making the extent and shade of the buff color the only really useful features to distinguish these two subspecies. In both respects the Saint Augustine bird does not fit the Asian subspecies.

In the 1980s I saw an extensively buff-colored Cattle Egret in southern Florida, which was the model for the illustration on page 64 of the Sibley Guide to Birds. Recently I was thinking about that sighting, and wondering if it could have been a vagrant from Asia. I will never know for sure, but this Saint Augustine bird shows that American Cattle Egrets can be buff-colored all over, and offers a much more likely explanation. Still, any Cattle Egret with extensive buff color should be checked for the possibility of the Asian subspecies.



Delhey, K., Peters, A. & Kampenaers, B., 2007. Cosmetic Coloration in Birds: Occurrence, Function, and Evolution. The American Naturalist, 169, pp.S145–S158.


Photos by Roy Halpin, originally posted at Digiscoper Magazine here:

Thanks to Satoko Lincoln for bringing this to my attention, and to Roy Halpin for allowing use of his photos.

11 thoughts on “An unusual Cattle Egret in Florida ”

  1. About a month ago (Late April 2013) I photographed a similar cattle egret here in Deland, Florida, about 2 hours south of St.Augustine. The rusty peach color on my bird seemed a bit darke than this bird, but who can be sure with digital photos, eh? The bill was REALLY orange. I have visited the same cow field (NE of the junction of Jacobs road and Plymoth ave. in Deland) many times since then, bt he has not returned to hang out with the cows since, as far as I know. Could be the same bird as yours, though, since they do range quite far.

  2. I’m visiting Florida this week and saw a similarly colored cattle egret at the Harney Canal Recreation Area at Lake Okeechobee, along the road. (Today, April21) I do not often get to see breeding or young cattle egrets as home is NY, so I did not realize how unusual the coloration was until later today. I did get a mediocre picture which I can send later this week if desired. The bird I saw was a lighter shade than the one in your image.

  3. Today, April 28, 2015, I photographed a buff cattle egret in a field with cattle and a donkey on River Road outside of Callahan, FL. It looks just like the above photo.

  4. There are two of these red colored cattle egret at Kayaka Park, Haleiwa, Hi. One of them has been consistently seen there for two years. I photographed one of the two on March 22, 2017.

    1. Satoko Lincoln

      Hi Mia Yellin,
      Did you mean Kaiaka Bay Beach Park? I hope that you will share your photos, as they could be the first record of a colorful Cattle Egret from O’ahu. A member of Hawaii Birdwatching Group on Facebook recently reported seeing a pink one at Waipio Costco parking lot, but she did not take photos. The Pyle Monograph (, published in 2009, says that one found in 1997 in Midway in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands was later determined to be of the Asian subspecies by AOU in 2004.
      Satoko Lincoln

  5. Capt Paul DeGaeta

    I photographed one yesterday, April 20, 2019 on a roosting island in the Peace River that Cattle Egrets share with Wood Storks, White Ibis, Snowy Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, White and Litle Blue Herons. It had the breeding season coloring: red flush on legs and bills. Have a great shot of it chasing a normal colored one for the contrast.

  6. Marvin T. Smith

    I found a buff-colored Cattle Egret in Valdosta, Ga 4-13-20. I have several photos, but don’t see any way to attach them here.

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