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Herons: Tall, Elegant… With a Hint of Danger

Great Blue Heron

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.

Great blue heron hunting

A Great blue heron wades through tidal flats with slow, steady movements so as not to scare potential prey.

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.

Great blue heron with vole

A Great blue heron carries its prize: a large vole.

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.

Little blue heron

A Little blue heron, photographed in Costa Rica.

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.

Green heron

A Green heron gets as low as possible in hopes that its prey under the surface of the water won’t see it.

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.

Lava heron

The tiny Lava heron is only found in the Galapagos Islands.

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.

Pond heron riding sambar deer

A Pond heron perches on a sambar deer while hunting fish and frogs in India.

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.

Baird's tapir and Cattle egret

Large mammals like the Baird’s tapir provide Cattle egrets with a bug buffet.

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.

Yellow-crowned night heron

A Yellow-crowned night heron uses the heat of the sun to kill off parasites in its feathers.

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!

Black-Crowned Night Heron

Though primarily nocturnal, Black-crowned night herons will occasionally hunt during the day.

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.

Bare-throated tiger heron

A male Bare-throated tiger heron emits his croaking courtship call.

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).

Fasciated tiger heron

The Fasciated tiger heron has cool-looking barred plumage.

The tallest heron in the world is Africa’s Goliath heron, a true giant that can grow as tall as five feet!

Goliath Heron

The Goliath heron is the world’s tallest heron species.

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.

Boat-billed heron

The odd-looking Boat-billed heron can be found in Latin America.

There are some pretty herons too.  The Agami heron, found in South America, may be the world’s most colorful heron species.

Agami heron

The Agami heron may well be the world’s most colorful and elegant 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.

Capped heron

On the same lake in Peru where I saw the Agami, Rufescent tiger and Boat-billed herons, there was this beautiful Capped heron, my favorite heron species.


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:

“Say ‘Nevermore'”: An appreciation of ravens.

The Consistently Common, Cooperative Coyote

Q is for Quokka

1 Comment

  1. Reny April 5, 2017 Reply

    Great artcle Max, never knew there were so many different herons.

    Especially love the picture with the large vole catch and the cattle egret waiting for the bug buffet to start made me laugh!

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