Back in 2003, my hometown of Seattle named the Great blue heron its “official bird.” Apparently this was instrumental in bolstering our civic pride. Many Seattlelites think, “we may not have a professional basketball team any more, and our traffic is terrible… thank goodness for the heron!” The GBH eked out a victory over the American crow in this important election. Since I’ve already written about my respect for corvids in the past, it’s about time I showed a little love to herons.
I do think herons are misunderstood, and perhaps a bit underrated. They come in all shapes and sizes, though I’m guessing most Americans who see the ubiquitous Great Blue just think it’s tall and gangly. Still, beyond the height, there’s a touch of elegance to them… at least, until they take to the air. The heron’s slow, steady movement when grounded (footsteps are slow and extremely precise when hunting) and trailing head crest of feathers give it a regal look.
Many just think of them as another shorebird, and we’re lulled into lumping them in with ducks and geese. But make no mistake, the heron is an efficient, nasty predator, and it’s willing to go after big meals. And not just fish. Herons have been seen attacking snakes, sharks and other birds. And they’ll certainly go after adorable little mammals too.
Though the Great Blue is the most recognizable member of the species (in Europe and Africa, its place is taken by the very similar Grey heron), there are a lot of varieties of herons around the globe, and I’ve seen them in far-flung places like Peru, India and New Zealand. Many are smaller than the Great blue, some are even bigger, a few look a bit bizarre… and some others might be considered pretty.
Here are some of the herons I’ve encountered over the years during my travels:
I’ve introduced you to the Great blue heron. Did you know there’s also a Little blue heron? No relation. Well, okay, maybe they’re distant cousins. But they’re different species. And yes, the Little blue heron is diminutive.
There are other small herons as well. The Green heron is pretty widespread in the Americas. I’ve seen it anywhere from Seattle all the way down to the tropics.
The Galapagos Islands are home to several unique wildlife species. Great blue herons are found there, but there’s another much smaller species that’s endemic to the islands. That would be the tiny Lava heron.
In India, Pond herons may perch on the backs of larger animals while scoping out potential prey in the water below, such as fish or tadpoles.
Egrets are herons too. Smaller egrets include the Snowy egret and the ubiquitous Cattle egret, which follows large mammals and livestock around in hopes of catching the bugs that are either stirred up by the giant’s passing, or that live on the mammal itself. I’ve seen them following anything from cattle to tapirs to elephants.
Herons may eat bugs, but they also have a bug problem. Many birds have problems with small parasites that take up occupancy under their plumage. Herons control this infestation by sunning themselves. The heat of the sun helps kill off parasites. So yes, this Yellow-crowned night heron is literally sunbathing.
True to its name, the Yellow-crowned night heron is predominantly nocturnal, though you do see them active during the day. Last year in Idaho, I had some nice opportunities to photograph a similar species, the Black-crowned night heron. Gotta love that red eye!
Like those red- and orange-eyed night herons, other species have their own unique characteristics. The Bare-throated tiger heron is a species I see frequently in Costa Rica. During courtship, males will emit a loud croaking sound. When they call, the patch of skin on their throat folds and unfolds, almost like a piece of origami, as it expands and contracts.
The Fasciated tiger heron sports an intricate barred pattern in its feathers (juvenile Bare-throated and Rufescent tiger herons also look a lot like this, by the way).
The tallest heron in the world is Africa’s Goliath heron, a true giant that can grow as tall as five feet!
Remember when I witnessed that Goliath heron attacking an eagle? What a monster!
Perhaps the ugliest or most bizarre-looking heron is the Boat-billed heron, another nocturnal species.
There are some pretty herons too. The Agami heron, found in South America, may be the world’s most colorful heron species.
And perhaps my favorite species is the unique-looking Capped heron, also from Latin America. The light plumage, long thin crest feathers and bright blue face give it a unique look among all the herons I’ve seen.
There’s no doubt that herons live among us. If you get a chance to travel further abroad, be sure to look for different varieties, and try to appreciate their hunting prowess, elegance and toughness.
Not all of these photos have made it into my photo archive, but if you search for the keyword “heron“ you may be able to find more species I’ve photographed in recent years.
Here are some other animals I’ve highlighted on the blog: