Photographed on the Texas City Dike
Black-crowned Night-Herons are stocky birds compared to many of their long-limbed heron relatives. They’re most active at night or at dusk, when you may see their ghostly forms flapping out from daytime roosts to forage in wetlands. In the light of day adults are striking in gray-and-black plumage and long white head plumes. These social birds breed in colonies of stick nests usually built over water. They live in fresh, salt, and brackish wetlands and are the most widespread heron in the world.
Scientists find it easy, if a bit smelly and messy, to study the diet of young Black-crowned Night-Herons—the nestlings often disgorge their stomach contents when approached.
Black-crowned Night Heron nest in groups that often include other species, including herons, egrets, and ibises.
A breeding Black-crowned Night-Heron will brood any chick that is placed in its nest. The herons apparently don’t distinguish between their own offspring and nestlings from other parents.
Young Black-crowned Night-Herons leave the nest at the age of 1 month but cannot fly until they are 6 weeks old. They move through the vegetation on foot, joining up in foraging flocks at night.
The familiar evening sight and sound of the Black-crowned Night-Heron was captured in this description from Arthur Bent’s Life Histories of North American Marsh Birds: “How often, in the gathering dusk of evening, have we heard its loud, choking squawk and, looking up, have seen its stocky form, dimly outlined against the gray sky and propelled by steady wing beats, as it wings its way high in the air toward its evening feeding place in some distant pond or marsh!”
Photographed in Brazos Bend State Park
While not as slender as a typical heron, the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron’s smooth purple-gray colors, sharp black-and-white face, and long yellow plumes lend it a touch of elegance. They forage at all hours of the day and night, stalking crustaceans in shallow wetlands and wet fields. Their diet leans heavily on crabs and crayfish, which they catch with a lunge and shake apart, or swallow whole. They’re most common in coastal marshes, barrier islands, and mangroves, but their range extends inland as far as the Midwest.
Yellow-crowned Night-Herons forage both during the day and at night—in coastal areas the tide can trump the time of day: most foraging occurs from 3 hours before high tide to 3 hours after.
Along the Atlantic Coast, the timing of their breeding season depends on when crabs emerge in the spring, which itself depends on local temperatures.
Found year-round along the crustacean-rich southern Atlantic coast, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons in North America can also breed inland by feeding on crayfish in streams. They may breed as far north as Michigan and Ontario, and individuals can appear even farther north and west in spring (mainly adults) and late summer or early fall (juveniles).
This species shows up several times in the fossil record, and the earliest recorded fossil is 2–2.5 million years old (from Sarasota, Florida).
The oldest Yellow-crowned Night-Heron on record, banded in Mexico in 1974, was at least 6 years, 3 months old.
To build their nests, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons usually break dead, brittle twigs and branches directly from standing vegetation. In some colonies, they may completely strip trees of their twigs. They also sometimes steal twigs from other nests.
Photographed in Anahuac NWR
A small, dark heron arrayed in moody blues and purples, the Little Blue Heron is a common but inconspicuous resident of marshes and estuaries in the Southeast. They stalk shallow waters for small fish and amphibians, adopting a quiet, methodical approach that can make these gorgeous herons surprisingly easy to overlook at first glance. Little Blue Herons build stick nests in trees alongside other colonial waterbirds. In the U.S., their populations have been in a gradual decline since the mid-twentieth century.
During the feathered-hat fashion craze of the early twentieth century, Little Blue Herons’ lack of showy “aigrette plumes” saved them from the hunting frenzy that decimated other heron and egret populations.
Little Blue Herons may gain a survival advantage by wearing white during their first year of life. Immature birds are likelier than their blue elders to be tolerated by Snowy Egrets—and in the egrets’ company, they catch more fish. Mingling in mixed-species flocks of white herons, immature Little Blue Herons probably also acquire extra protection against predators.
With their patchy white-and-blue appearance, Little Blue Herons in transition from the white first-year stage to blue adult plumage are often referred to as “Calico,” “Pied,” or “Piebald.”
When observing groups of white herons and egrets foraging together, look for the slow, deliberate movements of an immature Little Blue Heron. This stately and deliberate pace helps distinguish the Little Blue Heron from its relatives, which tend to move more quickly or erratically.
A row of built-in “teeth” along the Little Blue Heron’s middle toe serves as a grooming comb. The bird uses this handy tool to scratch its head, neck, and throat.