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Herons, Egrets and Ibis of North America

Black-crowned Night Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron from Surfbirds Galleries by Kit Day
Snowy Egret Snowy Egret - medium sized white heron found near water.

The Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) is a small white heron. It is the American counterpart to the very similar Old World Little Egret, which has established a foothold in the Bahamas.
Adults are typically 61 cm long and weigh 375 g. They have a slim black bill and long black legs with yellow feet. The area of the upper bill, in front of the eyes, is yellow but turns red during the breeding season, when the adults also gain recurved plumes on the back, making for a "shaggy" effect.
Their breeding habitat is large inland and coastal wetlands from the lower Great Lakes and southwestern United States to South America. The breeding range in eastern North America extends along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts from Maine to Texas, and inland along major rivers and lakes. They nest in colonies, often with other waders, usually on platforms of sticks in trees or shrubs. Their flat, shallow nests are made of sticks and lined with fine twigs and rushes. Three to four greenish-blue, oval eggs are incubated by both adults. The young leave the nest in 20 to 25 days and hop about on branches near the nest before finally departing.
In warmer locations, some Snowy Egret are permanent residents; northern populations migrate to Central America and the West Indies.

The birds eat fish, crustaceans, and insects. They stalk prey in shallow water, often running or shuffling their feet, flushing prey into view, as well "dip-fishing" by flying with their feet just over the water. Snowy Egrets may also stand still and wait to ambush prey, or hunt for insects stirred up by domestic animals in open fields.

Photo © Bruce Mactavish

great egret

Great Egret - twice the size of Snowy Egret. Note yellowish beak and legs.

The Great Egret is a large bird, 101 cm long and weighing 950 g. It is only slightly smaller than the Great Blue or Grey Herons. It has all white plumage. Apart from size, it can be distinguished from other white egrets by its yellow bill and black legs and feet. It also has a slow flight, with its neck retracted. This is characteristic of herons and bitterns, and distinguishes them from storks, cranes and spoonbills, which extend their necks.

Photo © Tristan Reid

Great Blue Heron Great Blue Heron - common around areas of water where they will stand still and fish. Largest heron.

This species usually breeds in colonies in trees close to lakes or other wetlands, often with other species of herons. It builds a bulky stick nest. The female lays 3 to 5 pale blue eggs. Both parents feed the young at the nest by regurgitating food.
It feeds in shallow water or at the water's edge and spears fish or frogs with its long, sharp bill. Its varied diet can also include insects, snakes, turtles, rodents and small birds. It will also raid goldfish ponds in back yards.
The Great Blue stands 132 cm (four feet) tall, has a 213 cm (seven-foot) wingspan and weighs 2.5 kg. It has a long yellow bill. Adults have blue-grey wings and back and a white head with a black cap and a long black plume. In flight, the long neck is held in an S-shape with the long legs trailing behind. This bird flies with strong deliberate wing beats.
Birds east of the Rockies in the northern part of their range are migratory and winter in Central America or northern South America. From the southern United States southwards and on the Pacific coast, they are year-round residents.
The call of this bird is a harsh croak.

Photo © Dave Appleton

Tricolored Heron Tricolored Heron - bird of marsh and wetland. Found in southern and eastern states.

Tricolored Heron's breeding habitat is sub-tropical swamps. It nests in colonies, often with other herons, usually on platforms of sticks in trees or shrubs. In each clutch 3-7 eggs are typically laid.
This species is about 56 cm long, with a 96 cm wingspan and weighs 350 g. It is a medium-large, long-legged, long-necked heron with a long pointed yellowish or greyish bill with a black tip. The legs and feet are dark.

Adults have a blue-grey head, neck, back and upperwings, with a white line along the neck. The belly is white. In breeding plumage, they have long blue filamentous plumes on the head and neck, and buff ones on the back.
Tricolored Heron stalks its prey in shallow or deeper water, often running as it does so. It eats fish, crustaceans, reptiles and insects.

Photo © Mark Wilson

green heron Green Heron - small heron often found in urban parks and wetlands.

Adults are about 44 cm long, and have a blue back and wings, a chestnut neck with a white line down the front, a black cap and short yellow legs. Juveniles are duller, with the head sides, neck and underparts streaked brown and white and greenish-yellow legs.
Their breeding habitat is small wetlands in eastern North America, Central America, the West Indies and the Pacific coast of Canada and the United States. They nest in a platform of sticks often in shrubs or trees, sometimes on the ground, often near water. The female lays 3 to 5 eggs. Both parents incubate for about 20 days until hatching, and feed the young birds which take a further 3 weeks to fledge.
Northern Green Heron populations of the race B. v. virescens are migratory and winter from the southern United States through to northern South America. This subspecies is an extremely rare vagrant to western Europe.
Resident breeding birds in the Caribbean and Central America belong to the shorter-winged race B. v. maculatus
Green Herons stand still at the water's edge and wait to ambush prey. They mainly eat small fish, frogs and aquatic insects. They sometimes drop food on the water's surface to attract fish. Their call is a loud and sudden kyow.

Photo © Steve Round

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron - most active at dusk when they make frog like croaking calls. Adults are black, white with gray backs (top picture). Young are brown and spotted (bottom picture).

Adults are 64 cm long and weigh 800 g. They have a black crown and back with the remainder of the body white or grey, red eyes, and short yellow legs. Young birds are brown, flecked with white and grey. These are short-necked and stout herons.

The breeding habitat is fresh and salt-water wetlands throughout much of the world. The subspecies N. n. hoactli breeds in North and South America from Canada as far south as Patagonia, and the nominate race N. n. nycticorax in Europe, Asia and Africa. Black-crowned Night Herons nest in colonies on platforms of sticks in a group of trees, or on the ground in protected locations such as islands or reedbeds. 3-8 eggs are laid.
This heron is migratory outside the tropical parts of its extensive range, where it is a permanent resident. The North American population winters in Mexico, the southern United States, Central America, and the West Indies, and the Old World birds winter in tropical Africa and southern Asia.
These birds stand still at the water's edge and wait to ambush prey, mainly at night. They primarily eat small fish, crustaceans, frogs, aquatic insects, and small mammals. During the day they rest in trees or bushes. The New World race is more gregarious outside the breeding season than the nominate race.
The scientific name, Nycticorax, means "night raven", and refers to this species' nocturnal habits and harsh crow-like call.

Photo © Kit Day

Photo © Ole Krogh

Yellow-crowned Night Heron Yellow-crowned Night Heron - similar to Black-crowned night Heron. Found in southern and eastern states.

Adults are 61 cm long and weigh 625 g. They have a white crown and back with the remainder of the body greyish, red eyes and short yellow legs. They have a white stripe below the eye. Juveniles resemble young Black-crowned Night-Herons, being mainly brown flecked with white or grey.
Their breeding habitat is swamps and marshes in the eastern United States to north-eastern South America. They often nest in colonies, usually on platforms of sticks in trees or shrubs overhanging water. they lay 3-5 pale blue-green eggs.
In warmer locations, some are permanent residents; others migrate to Central America and the West Indies. They may occasionally wander north to the lower Great Lakes or Ontario after the breeding season.
A related heron was endemic to Bermuda, but became extinct following human colonisation. American yellow-crowned night herons have been introduced to fill its ecological niche.
These birds stalk their prey or stand still at the water's edge and wait to ambush prey, mainly at night. They mainly eat crustaceans, mollusks, frogs, aquatic insects and small fish.

Photo © John Malloy

White Ibis White Ibis - all white with black wing tips in flight. Note curved bill and red legs.

Occurs in marshy wetlands and pools near the coast. It also occurs on mowed grass and has become common in some city parks. It builds a stick nest in trees, bushes, or over water, and 2 to 5 eggs are typically laid. White ibises are monogomous and colonial, usually nesting in mixed colonies with other wading species.
This ibis feeds by probing with its long, downcurved beak. Its diet consists of various fish, frogs and other water creatures, as well as insects.
Adults are 65 cm long with a 95 cm wingspan. They have all-white plumage except for black wing-tips (visible in flight) and reddish bills and legs. The red bill blends into the face of breeding birds; non-breeding birds show a pink to red face. Juveniles are largely brown with duller bare parts; they are distinguished from the Glossy and White-faced Ibises by white underparts and rumps.
Like the other species of ibis, the White Ibis flies with neck and legs outstreched, often in long, loose lines.
The song of the male is an advertising hunk-hunk-hunk-hunk. The female squeals. When feeding, the birds often give a soft, grunting croo, croo, croo as they forage.
This bird hybridizes with the Scarlet Ibis, and they are sometimes considered conspecific.

Photo © Bill Schmoker