Herons are salt and freshwater birds that travel all over the western hemisphere in search of food and warm weather. These migratory birds reside in an array of waterfronts such as lakes, rivers, ponds, marshes and swamps. Heron’s large wings make them strong fliers and proficient travelers.
When not migrating, herons seldom travel long distances from their nests. Herons are wading birds that spend most of their time patiently and slowly stalking the shoreline for prey. They eat a variety of foods but their main diet is fish. Herons have long, skinny and flexible legs that allow them to have a “bird’s eye view” of the fish swimming around them. Their sharp, long toes allow them to balance on top of sand or mud. Herons have a strong neck that helps them catch fish.
One of their most unique features is their “powder down” feathers. These specialized feathers can be crumbled into a powder-like substance with the heron’s foot. This powder absorbs oils during the heron’s preening process. The heron applies this powder to its underbelly to remove the slime after wading in swamps. The powder causes the slime to clump up and the heron can then brush it away. The powder can also remove slick oils from fish. This feature plays a large role in the bird’s overall hygiene.
During breeding season, female and male herons work together to care for their young. Male herons begin attracting their mate by building a nest to impress the female. If the female likes the nest then she will help in its construction. The female will begin taking over the building while the male goes out to gather supplies (such as sticks and twigs). Both the male and female take turns incubating the eggs and feeding their young once hatched.
Though some herons are solitary nesters, many herons live among other birds in the same tree in colonies are called heronries.
Herons are the prey of foxes, minks, raccoons, hawks and owls. But their biggest threat is habitat damage. Many herons perish after the loss of their homes or feeding areas due to flooding, draining or pollution.
There are 65 different species of herons in the world. Three are on exhibit at the Virginia Living Museum.
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias- The great blue heron is Virginia’s largest wetland bird and North America’s largest heron. These birds stand four feet tall and have a wing span of six feet. The great blue heron gets its name from the blue-gray coloring that covers its body and wings. Its face is completely white with a black streak around yellow eyes.
Great blue herons are skilled hunters. They can catch a variety of fish as well as snakes, frogs, crayfish, insects, mice and occasionally small birds. They usually hunt throughout the day and will perch in trees at night. They generally hunt alone but will nest in colonies of up to several hundred birds. Great blue herons nest in tall trees, with nests about four feet wide. Sometimes they will reuse old nests. They lay three to six pale blue eggs per nest.
Great blue heron numbers were declining due to over hunting. Now they are protected by federal and state laws and have increased in number over the last 20 years. But habitat destruction is still seen as a concern in the survival of the species.
Black-Crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax- The black–crowned night heron gets its name from both its coloring (black colored forehead) and its behavior. Like its cousin, the yellow-crowned night heron, black-crowned night herons hunt during the night. Some scientists believe this is due to less competition for food among larger birds at night.
The black–crowned night heron has a heavy body with a short, thick neck. The adults have a blackish-green back, a white underside, yellow-orange legs and a white plume on top of their head. In stark contrast, the juvenile’s body is brown. Adults average about 26 inches in height and have a 46 inch wingspan. Their large eyes help them track prey in the dark.
Black-crowned night herons generally travel in groups and during the day they sit in clusters in trees. They nest in these trees or on the ground within marshes. When breeding season arrives the female will lay one to five eggs in a nest. During the night they also group together hunting in flocks. Black–crowned night herons hunt mainly fish (as well as eat fish remains) but they also track down earthworms, small rodents, insects and crayfish.
Yellow-Crowned Night Heron Nyctanassa violacea- The yellow-crowned night heron is similar to its cousin the black–crowned night heron except it is more active during the day and has a slightly different appearance. Similar to its cousin, the yellow-crowned night heron is short, heavy bodied and has a strong, thick neck. In contrast, it has longer legs, a yellow patch of fur on its crown, a white face and a gray body.
It eats an array of shoreline creatures, including the remains of animals and live prey, plus crabs, fish, frogs, salamanders, insects and crayfish. Similar to other herons, it nests in groups in either trees or shrubs. In each nest the female can lay three to four eggs per year. Yellow-crowned night herons are found throughout Virginia.