With their long legs and necks, herons are often confused for cranes or storks. However, a closer look will reveal that the two are entirely different types of birds.
Both bitterns and egrets are also classified as herons. All three groups share certain physical similarities, like neck structure and beak length. Egrets tend to be classified differently as they are primarily white instead of the bright plumage of herons and bitterns.
List of the Various Heron Species
Herons are distributed into three groups – bitterns, egrets, and herons. 66 species fall under these categories:
The smallest heron is the dwarf bittern at about 10-15 inches, while the largest is the goliath heron, reaching up to 60 inches.
Weight: 2.1 oz to 11 lbs. (59.5 g – 4.9 kg)
The little egret weighs about 2.1 ounces, while the goliath heron weighs 8-11 lbs.
Body and Coloration: The distinguishing features shared by almost all herons are their long necks and legs. Thanks to the 20-21 cervical vertebrae, they can modify their necks into an S-shape and retract and extend them freely.
Their feet consist of three toes in front and one in the back. Each of these toes is long and thin, with the one in the back being smaller than the others and ending with a curved nail.
While the bills are usually long and harpoon-like, there are variations in appearance. For instance, the agami heron has a fine beak longer than its head, while the bill of the grey heron is thicker and more powerful.
The plumage of these birds consists of soft feathers, which come in various colors like black, blue, brown, grey, or white.
Except for the Arctic and the continent of Antarctica, herons are found throughout the world. As waterbirds, they prefer places that have access to water, so they avoid places like deserts and mountains.
Where do they live
Herons live on the margins of waterbodies like lakes, ponds, rivers, swamps, and the sea. They prefer lowlands and wetlands, though some live in alpine areas.
How long do they live
The lifespan of a heron can vary depending on the species; Great blue herons live for 15 years on average, while grey herons only live for five years.
What do they eat
Carnivorous by nature, these birds primarily feed on amphibians, aquatic insects, crustaceans, fish, mollusks, and reptiles. On rare occasions, they feed on birds and their eggs, carrion, rodents, and even vegetation like acorns, peas, and grains.
While hunting, herons stand motionless, close to the water’s edge or inside shallow water, waiting for prey to swim by. Once a suitable target is in range, they spear it with their beaks.
Herons flap and extend their wings to reduce the sun’s glare; this adds the benefit of attracting prey toward the shade.
Certain species, like the grey heron and the little egret, use bait like bread while hunting.
Most heron species are colonial, forming large colonies with not only their species but with other species as well. However, some bitterns and egrets prefer to remain solitary.
The bills of this family of birds are sharp and long, allowing them to spear their prey.
Thanks to their flexible neck, herons can quickly retract and extend their beaks to impale their targets with force.
These birds have long legs and extended toes, helping them wade through mud and silt.
They possess down feathers whose tips disintegrate into powder. Herons preen themselves with this “powder down” to remove dirt and oil to clean their plumage.
How do they reproduce
Herons are monogamous, with the courtship period starting with the male beginning to build the nest. He then performs a series of displays on the nest to attract a mate. An interested female will approach him, and together they finish constructing the nest. There are exceptions, as in the case of the least bitterns and the little bitterns, the males build the nests entirely.
On average, herons lay 3-7 eggs. The clutch size varies, as bitterns and egrets tend to lay more eggs, while some tiger herons lay only a single egg. The eggs are glossy blue or white, except for the large bitterns, which lay olive-brown eggs.
While most heron species are “Least Concern” or “LC”, several others are at risk. Most notably, the great white heron, the Australasian bittern, the white-eared night heron, the Madagascar heron, and the Madagascar Pond-heron are all classified as “Endangered” or “EN”, and the white-bellied heron is “Critically Endangered” or “CR”.
As the wetlands where these birds live are constantly threatened due to human activities, herons face both degradation and loss of their habitats.
Heron – FAQs
Where do herons nest?
Herons tend to build their nests close to a source of water. There is a preference for trees and shrubs, as these birds will construct nests around vegetation in their absence.
How do cranes and herons differ?
The most notable difference between the two birds is in their necks. Cranes have shorter necks than herons and keep them extended while in flight. Herons retract their necks while flying.
Do herons mate for life?
While these birds observe monogamy, it appears seasonal, with partners changing after each breeding season.
Which animals prey on herons?
Adult herons have almost no predators, but animals carry off eggs and juveniles like foxes, minks, opossums, raccoons, rodents, and weasels and birds like crows, falcons, hawks, and seagulls.
What is a group of herons called?
A group of herons is called a siege.
Herons are sometimes called “shitepokes” due to their tendency to defecate when flushed.
These birds have shown up in backyard ponds while searching for food. It’s best to avoid the birds until they leave, as they can cause injuries with their beaks.