Why farmers should conserve cattle egrets in Nepal

Bastu bakulla/ Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis). Photo: Aryan Dhimal
Bubulcus ibis/cattle egrets in Nepal. Photo: Aryan Dhimal

Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) is a species that is found across the tropical, subtropical, and warm temperature zones throughout Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Known as baastu bakulla in Nepali, the name “cattle egret” comes from the fact that it follows cattle or other large mammals to feed on insects that are aroused by their movements. Perhaps that is why farmers need to conserve cattle egrets in Nepal also.

The friend of the farmers

Cattle egret is a small, white bird with a yellow beak and black legs. During the breeding season, buff plumes are added to it.

It consumes a variety of prey items although it prefers insects including grasshoppers, crickets, flies (adult and maggots), beetles and moths. It also eats spiders, frogs, fish, crayfish, tiny snakes, lizards, and earthworms.

This species has a strong bond with cattle and other large grazing mammals. Ticks and insects are removed from cattle by the cattle egret, who then eats them.

Hence, cattle egrets in Nepal and elsewhere help farmers control insect and pest levels, which lowers the need for pesticides. They serve as sentinels to alert grazing animals of potential predators in addition to eradicating insects. All these characteristic of cattle egret makes it the unsung hero of farmers.

Farmers say their yield is nominal if they do not use pesticides, due to climate change impact. Photo: Aryan Dhimal
Cattle egrets can help farmers in pest control. Photo: Aryan Dhimal

A 2007 study found that the cattle egret has a substantially increased economic relevance in agriculture (51.1 per cent) because it aids in the elimination of 88.7 per cent of pests in agricultural fields in Nigeria.

Cattle egrets in Nepal help control insect and pest levels, which lowers the need for pesticides. They serve as custodians to alert grazing animals of potential predators in addition to eradicating insects. Cattle egrets often play a significant role in preserving the health and welfare of this livestock. The amount of money the farmers spend on insecticides and medications to treat parasites that eat the skin of cattle can decrease if cattle egrets in Nepal are saved.

However, not every interaction between people and cattle egrets is advantageous. Due to its propensity to eat in huge flocks on the grassy edges of airports, cattle egrets pose a risk to aircraft safety. It has also been linked to the spread of diseases such as infectious bursal disease, heartwater, and probably Newcastle disease. It is also known for pecking at open sores on livestock’s skin, which can cause infection.

Cattle egrets in Nepal

A cattle egret in Kathmandu. Photo: Aryan Dhimal
A cattle egret in Kathmandu. Photo: Aryan Dhimal

The distribution of cattle egrets in Nepal has been observed below 1500m near swamps, grasslands, near ponds. They are frequently observed feeding with grazing livestock. Larger populations of cattle egrets frequently appear in rice fields.

It suggests that cattle egrets have a favourable foraging environment in the rice field. They could feed on aquatic organisms and find ideal breeding grounds in swampy and riverine regions. Hence, it is common that most cattle egrets in Nepal live where the country produces most rice.

Even though they greatly aid farmers, they receive less respect and recognition than other animals.

As this species’ population status is on the rise and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has rated it as least concerning, there has been a notable lack of research on it. Nonetheless, wetland degradation and lake drainage for irrigation and hydroelectric power generation endanger this species’ ability to reproduce.

The white birds have direct or indirect significance for people. Watch these birds’ splendour the next time you see them because you never know which species will become extinct at what time.

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Poudel is a student of Forestry at the College of Natural Resources Management, Katari.

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