Peter Valentine | Conservation Officer
(Where do all the Cattle Egrets breed … long time passing. Apologies to Pete Seeger).
As with many Australian birds, a starting point to investigate the Cattle Egret in Australia is searching back copies of The Emu. In a piece by Hewitt published in 1960, the origin of this species’ arrival in Australia is discussed. One possibility canvassed was the deliberate 1933 release of 18 birds, imported from India, in Derby, Western Australia (WA). It appears that some of these birds were killed by “hawks” and few may have survived.
There is a more widely held belief that the bulk, if not all, of our Cattle Egrets were natural immigrants from nearby Asian populations. There is no doubt the species is capable of long distance migration, and it is believed that the South American population similarly arose from natural migration, in that case an over 3,000 km oceanic gap!
The initial records in northern Queensland (NQ) were: near Mt Isa in 1954 (Wheeler 1962, seven birds), Innisfail in 1961 (Gill 1970, 25 birds) and Hasties Swamp 1962 (Bravery 1970, one bird). The numbers of Cattle Egret in the south increased quite rapidly and before long breeding colonies were established in the south-east of Queensland and in New South Wales (NSW). The species has become established in Victoria and South Australia also, as well as WA.
In our NQ region I have noticed signs of increased numbers over recent years and this year in particular, huge flocks are gathering in harvested paddocks. There are also many birds associated with cattle. The question of where these Far North Queensland birds go to breed seemed an obvious one, but with little to go on.
According to HANZAB (1990) the only breeding colony in northern Queensland at that time was near Ayr. I recall seeing this colony when I was living in Townsville in the 1970s. With so many Cattle Egrets in the far north, where might they breed? It is known that Cattle Egrets are capable of extended flight (New Zealand birds breed in Australia). and the birds in the far south of eastern Australia all go to northern NSW and southern Queensland to breed. In theory our birds could fly a long distance to breed. But what is known?
In trying to find an answer I turned to an early edition of BirdLife Northern Queensland’s Contact Call, and an article by Jon Nott describing an organised Cattle Egret count conducted on the Tablelands (and in the Innisfail area). I subsequently spoke with Jon about the count and discovered that he had been wondering much the same as I had about what had happened here since the Cattle Egrets arrived, and therefore making a survey a sensible project.
In the December 1998 Issue of Contact Call, Jon wrote a description of the count and the results: the survey was conducted on the 5th September 1998 and found a total sighting of 1,500 birds across four major roosts on the Tableland. While none of the Tableland roosts supported breeding birds, a site near Innisfail on the South Johnstone River was believed to support some breeding birds. In the same Contact Call a report from Jo Wienecke (1998) indicated that a breeding roost on the Ross River, Townsville had been subject to a count in October 1998 that showed a dramatic increase in numbers to a total of 1,860 birds, compared with 625 in 1996 and 1,020 in 1997. This roost in Townsville may well be a possible breeding location for our Tableland birds. In my conversation with Jon it seemed we were both wondering what impacts this greatly increased population of Cattle Egrets might be having in terms of the food resources consumed, and possible displacement of other species. I have not been able to find much written about this issue anywhere.
Given that the initial survey arranged by Jon Nott is now 25 years ago, we think it may be quite timely to undertake a repeat survey. To that end we are looking for volunteers who might be willing to join us for a day and count Cattle Egrets on the Tableland. It would be excellent if some people could do local counts on the coastal areas also. In the meantime, if anyone has come across any breeding roosts in far northern Queensland we would love to hear about them.
Please email your interest and contact details to firstname.lastname@example.org and likewise any information about breeding records.
My thanks to Jon Nott for his follow-up conversations and for enthusiasm to repeat the count! And to Lindsay Fisher who managed to find the old Contact Call article.
Bravery, J.A. (1970) The Birds of Atherton Shire, Queensland. Emu – Austral Ornithology, 70:2, pp 49-63.
Gill, H.B. (1970) Birds of Innisfail and Hinterland. Emu – Austral Ornithology, 70:3, pp 105-116.
Hewitt, J.M. (1960) The Cattle Egret in Australia. Emu - Austral Ornithology, 60:2, pp 99-102.
Marchant, S. and Higgins, P.J. et al. (1990) Handbook of Australian, New Zealand & Antarctic Birds. Vol 1 Pt B. Cattle Egret, pp 1017-1028.
Nott, Jon. (1998) Atherton Tableland Cattle Egret Count. Contact Call, December 1998, pg 1.
Wheeler, J.R. (1962) Observations on the Cattle Egret in Eastern Australia. Emu - Austral Ornithology, 62:3, pp 192-193.
Wienecke, Jo. (1998) Townsville Cattle Egret Count. Contact Call, December 1998, pg 1.
Note: The complete EMU back issues are available to BirdLife members. There is a cumbersome access path through the BirdLife national website.