From Cattle Egret to Western Cattle Egret: Why the Name Change?

Western Cattle Egret with breeding plumage captured in the wild. Photo by Bill Steincamp

What goes into a bird’s name change? It turns out – a lot! A change was recently announced affecting one of our regular patients at International Bird Rescue: the Cattle Egret, now Western Cattle Egret. So tip your hat to evolution, and embrace the spirit of the Wild West.

Our knowledge of bird taxonomy (a system of classification for organisms) is always expanding thanks to ongoing research – particularly in the area of genetics. To make sure our bird lists and information resources are keeping up with our learning, bird experts complete annual reviews and make updates to the taxonomy by combining some species and splitting others apart. The review of the Clement’s Taxonomy (a list used by organizations such as eBird and Birds of the World) was completed in October 2023, which resulted in the Cattle Egret’s new names.

This medium sized egret, often seen in fields amongst grazing cattle (as its name suggests) has been split into two separate species. The population found throughout the Americas, Europe, and Africa is now known as the Western Cattle Egret, and the population found in Asia and Australia is now the Eastern Cattle Egret. Splits like this can happen when two populations of a single species are separated geographically and cannot mix, leading them on different evolutionary paths.

Differences between the Western Cattle Egret and Eastern Cattle Egret can be seen in the plumage. Helpful drawings outlining additional differences can be found on the Sibley Guides website.

While the Western and Eastern Cattle Egrets still look very similar in the non-breeding season, differences can be seen in their breeding plumage. Western Cattle Egrets develop buff-colored plumage on their crowns, breast and back. The coloring is far more extensive in the Eastern Cattle Egret, with their entire head and neck developing a deeper buff coloring. Helpful drawings outlining the differences between the two species can be found on the Sibley Guides website.

Did you know?

Orphaned Western Cattle Egret chick in care at International Bird Rescue in April 2016. Photo by Cheryl Reynolds – International Bird Rescue

Western Cattle Egrets are a relatively new species in North America, having expanded their range naturally from Africa all the way up to the United States in the 1950s. At Bird Rescue, we most commonly receive these birds as orphans when they have fallen from their nests and raise them by hand before releasing them back into the wild.

We’re anticipating more name changes for some of the birds we care for at Bird Rescue, some taxonomy related, some not. Stay tuned for more information!