Each summer in Connecticut seems to have its own featured bird, and this year – at least for me – it’s the Night Heron, primarily the Black-crowned Night Heron but even some Yellow-crowned as well. Although their squat proportions aren’t typical when we think of herons with their long necks and graceful strides, night herons are just as beautiful and interesting in their own way.
The biggest difference between the black-crowned night heron and the yellow-crowned night heron might be their names! Both varieties are small and stocky and both also have gray bodies, yellow legs, black bills, and long white head plumes. Differences can be spotted when you take a closer look at these birds’ faces and bodies.
The black-crowned night heron has a very clearly defined black crown and black back with some lighter white or gray coloration on the face and chest. This night heron also tends to keep its neck tucked into its shoulders, especially in flight. The yellow-crowned night heron possesses a yellowish crown stripe and patches of white on its cheeks. Dark gray or black feathers spot the wings of yellow-crowned night herons and their necks are a bit more elongated than that of their counterpart.
The other day I was kayaking back in the marsh by Canfield Island and I saw five or six immature night herons together. They didn’t tolerate me for long, though…While I can get up close to egrets or ospreys, it’s a rare night heron that will stay in the open for my approach. On the other hand, if they’re back in some branches on a tree and they don’t think you can see them, they’ll stay in place. Although these birds are shy when it comes to humans, both black-crowned and yellow-crowned night herons are actually social birds and spend their time in small colonies.
Although night herons have become somewhat used to the presence of humans, they certainly don’t enjoy it and try to avoid it as much as possible. If people create disturbances near a night heron colony, the birds will abandon their nests and their young. Nestlings will also cough up the contents of their stomachs if they are approached, which admittedly makes it easy for naturalists to study the dietary habits of immature night herons.
Night herons were also used as a Cajun dish and poachers would raid nesting communities to obtain the breast meat of young birds. Thankfully, this practice is now illegal. Although night herons are pretty common throughout North America and appear to have a stable population, the Waterbird Conservation Plan considers them to be of moderate concern because of a potentially declining population. Draining and development of their habitat and poor water quality due to contaminated runoff could impact the lives of these birds in the very near future.
Sometimes as we’re packing up after dinner on Sprite Island (Westport, CT) and the sun has gone down, you can see the night herons land among the picnic tables, as well as flying overhead. I guess they feel safer in the dark since they are most active at night and around dusk. Dave Pattee just told me a story of rescuing a night heron from the water off Sprite Island. Apparently, the bird let Dave pick him up and dry him off without much fuss. Shy doesn’t work too well if you’re drowning!
In North America, night herons typically inhabit wetlands like marshes, swamps, rivers, lakes, lagoons, and agricultural fields. These areas offer the birds both the opportunity for aquatic foraging and terrestrial vegetation coverage. The breeding range of the black-crowned night heron covers much of North America and some populations prefer to remain year-round residents.
Some birds prefer to migrate shorter distances while others will spend their winter on the coast, from New England to Florida, and into Mexico. The yellow-crowned night heron covers a much smaller range, breeding mostly along the coast but venturing from New England to Florida and west toward Texas. Some of these birds like to nest year-round in Florida and the Texas coast. They also typically don’t migrate very far out of their regular nesting zone.
Night herons prefer to nest in colonies and both the male and female assist in constructing the nest. The nests, constructed out of sticks, twigs, and other vegetation, are built in trees that are close to or overlooking water.
One tree might contain a dozen night heron nests and colony sites might be used continuously for more than 20 years. A few years back, I was paddling with a small group among the mangroves in Sarasota Bay. Suddenly, Denise Marcil, who was sitting in the front of our kayak, said, “Look!” There among all the mangroves I had been surveying were about a dozen night heron faces that I hadn’t even noticed. They were all on nests, and none of them stirred even a millimeter as we paddled by.
Night herons are thought to be monogamous and they share the duties of incubating the eggs and feeding their chicks. Young night herons leave the nest at around one month old but don’t learn how to fly until they are around six weeks old. Until then, they wander through the vegetation on foot and even form nocturnal feeding flocks with other young night herons.
Over 20 years ago, Alice (my wife) and I had a black-crowned night heron in the stream behind a house we were renting. We weren’t as “into” birds at the time as we are now but we did have a bird ID book. Despite that, we still couldn’t find anything close to what we were looking at. We finally decided that it was a bittern. We’re a little better these days on the IDs, but telling the difference between immature black-crowned and yellow-crowned is still a challenge!