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Herons. Bird Orders. Ciconiiformes-part one

Updated on July 24, 2015

Heron attempting to swallow a fish



Looking at Bird Orders, is a series looking at birds, that have been placed in Orders,and the families and species within those orders. Here we look at the Ciconiiformes an order of birds which includes the Herons,Bitterns,Egrets, Storks and the Spoonbills.

It was the fifth order into which Baron Cuvier {see Galiformes,part-4} divided the feathered tribes in his arrangements. He classed them as Echassels-Stilt birds.

The Bittern Botaurus stellaris has been reviewed in detail in my series 'Birds of Europe'


The general characteristics of the Ciconiiformes.

They have the lower parts of their thighs naked and the tarsi generally are long. This arrangement allows them to wade in water without wetting their plumage. In general they wade into shallow water,however, some of them can swim readily. Some of the order have strong bills and these feed upon fish and aquatic creatures which they seize in the water. A few of them feed also on seeds and other vegetable matter and these are the species which inhabit farthest from the water.

The greater number have the outer and middle toe united by a membrane at the base,but the inner toe is generally free,and the feet not adapted for swimming. Sometimes however, the toes are emarginated with membrane and in many the hind toe is absent altogether,or in most so short as not to touch the ground when they walk.

Under Cuvier's system the Ostriches,Cassowaries and the Emus were classed in this order. Today the Ostriches are placed in the order Struthioniformes,the Emu's and Cassowaries placed in the order Casuariformes.

Today's classification has seen many changes from Cuvier's time and the order Ciconiiformes includes the families Ardeidae the Herons and their Allies,Balaenicipitdae, Scopidae,Ciconiidae,Threskiornithidae and Cathartidae. Here in part one of this order we review the family Ardeidae-Herons and their allies.

The Grey Heron Ardea cinerea has been reviewed in detail in my series 'Birds of Europe' The Common Bittern likewise.

Heron inflight with legs stretched out behind them and the long neck held in an 'S'shape to the shoulders


Gathering nesting material

Originally posted to Flickr. The image was taken in Illinois USA
Originally posted to Flickr. The image was taken in Illinois USA | Source

Great Blue Herons nesting

Taken at Stanley Park Vancouver,British Columbia
Taken at Stanley Park Vancouver,British Columbia | Source

The family Ardeidae-The Herons and their allies.

The family Ardeidae is an interesting group of birds which were once classed with the waders in the order Grallidae and the family Gruidae or Cranes,to which the Cranes still belong in the order Gruiformes.

Herons are a fascinating group which have long legs and neck and generally slender bodies as do the egrets. Crab-eating Herons have shorter legs. Egrets also have beautifully produced feathers on the back,which help them to 'float' very lightly in the air. They are all more or less migrants and birds of high powerful flight,but those with produced supplemental feathers,which are understood to be seasonal in most species,are generally regarded as being more migratory in their habits that those which have not.

Herons in one species or another are found in most parts of the world.In all parts they frequent the banks of ponds.lakes,rivers and some of them are met with on the shores of the sea. The length of their necks,wings and legs make them appear to be much larger than they really are in reality. Like most species of this family they project their feet straight out behind them when on the wing. The neck is held in an 'S'shape in flight.

They are light birds in proportion to their powers of flight and in consequence can get in the air more quickly than other birds that have more powerful flight. Unlike the Storks,Herons do not rest themselves standing on the ground,or at least not for any length of time. Their preferred resting places are on the tops of trees,especially those that have the upper branches lateral and form a sort of platform. The birds stand upon these,and generally the whole body is seen above the tops of the trees,in which situations they have a stately and noble appearance.

Herons are very industrious birds and very successful fishers,but their food is pretty miscellaneous. They eat the spawn of fishes,worms,shelled and naked molluscs ,crustaceans ,animals and frogs,and the smaller Mammalia which inhabit near the water.

They have one principle moult per year,and the sexes do not differ from each other in general appearance. Although they tend to frequent obscure and lonely places in their natural state they also have a good deal of social feeling about them. This is especially so during the breeding season when Heronries can maintain many nesting birds in close proximity to each other.


Taken at Everglades Nation Park Florida USA
Taken at Everglades Nation Park Florida USA | Source

Great Blue Heron

Taken at Union Bay Natural Area.
Taken at Union Bay Natural Area. | Source

A look at the Species

The Great Blue Heron Ardea herodius. this is an American species ,resembling the Common Grey heron of Europe,both inits shape and colour,but it is considerably larger in size,and almost double the weight. The length of the bird from the tip of the bill to the tail is over four feet and the legs extend to a foot { 30 cm } beyond the tail when in flight. The wing span is a fully six feet and the weight not less than seven pounds,while that of the common Heron is generally less than four.

When the common heron is referred to in America it is likely that it is The Great Blue heron that is referred to. It is found throughout most of North America as far north as Alaska and the southern Canadian provinces,south to Florida,mexico and the Caribbean to south America. Abounding as it does in woods and waters America is the very home of the Herons. The species of Herons very numerous and the birds themselves abundant.

Wilson,after mentioning that the Great Blue heron are found in numbers on the Atlantic coasts than in the central valleys,and pointing out some localities which are favourite ones with them,he describes their building places.

" These are generally in the gloomy solitudes of the tallest Cedar swamps,where if left unmolested,they continue annually to breed for many years. These swamps are from half a mile in breadth,and sometimes five or six in length,and appear as if they occupied the former channel of some choked up river,stream,lake or arm of the sea. The appearance sent to a stranger is singular. A front of tall and perfectly straight trunks,rising to the height of fifty or sixty feet without a limb,and crowded in every direction,their tops so closely woven together as to shut out the day,spreading the gloom of a perpetual twilight below."

" in calm weather the silence of death reigns in these dreary regions. A few uninterrupted rays of light shoot across the gloom. On the tops of the tallest trees the Herons construct their nests,ten or fifteen pairs sometimes occupying a particular part of the swamp. The nest are large,formed of sticks and lined with a few smaller twigs,each occupies the top of a single tree.The eggs are usually four in number of an oblong pointed form,larger than those of the hen and of a light greenish blue,without any spots. the young are produced about the middle of May and remain on the trees until they are as full as heavy as the old ones, being extremely fat before they are able to fly."

Times have changed since Wilson's day and the birds now tend to nest in more populated places these days as well as their traditional haunts. The principle food of the Great Blue heron is fish,for which they watch with the most assiduous of patience.,and seize them with amazing dexterity. The fish are eaten head first. The bird will also take small mammals,amphibians,reptiles and even small birds. They are usually solitary feeders.

Ardea alba sometimes referred to as Egretta alba

Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons by Fae
Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons by Fae | Source

Great White heron/Great white Egret

The Great White heron ,more commonly referred to as the Great White Egret in Europe or the Common or Large Egret in the USA. Although in the family Ardeidae they are sometimes classed in the order Pelecaniformes as well as the order Ciconiiformes.

This species Egretta alba {sometimes referred to as Ardea alba} though inferior in size to the Great Blue heron appears very conspicuous by its colour. It is, unlike the Little Egret, very rare in western Europe. This species occurs in the more southerly parts of the USA and is slowly expanding its range. Indeed it is so far north as southern Canada. However, in some parts of the southerly States its numbers have declined due to habitat loss. In 1953 this species in flight,was chosen as the symbol of the National Audubon Society,which was formed,in part, to prevent the killing of these birds for their feathers. { many were killed around the end of the 19th century onwards so that their plumes could be used to decorate hats}.

They do occur in southern Europe and Asia. The general characteristics are as follows.

The length of the bird is 34-39 inches {85-100 cm} And the weight is 1.5 Kg {two and a quarter to three and a quarter pounds} the feathers on the back extend beyond the tail. These feathers arise from the lower parts of the scapulars and sides of the back. This plumage is particularly graceful and it hangs in a delicate curve over the hinder part of the body,completely concealing the tail.

The bill is about six inches long of a bright orange-yellow colour and black at the tip. The iris is pale yellow/orange,and the pupil very small. The legs are very long and stout,bare fro four inches above the tarsal joint and of a black colour. The toes are long,the middle and hind one stretching six inches from tip to tip. The inner claw is toothed on its inner edge and the middle and exterior toes are united by a membrane for about half an inch at the base. This structure of the foot is well adapted for walking on aquatic plants and on soft muddy ground.

The length and strength of the legs ,together with the extent to which they are naked of feathers,enable the bird to wade deeply without getting its plumage wet. Both sexes resemble each other. the young birds are different,and they do not acquire their adult plumage till they are three years old. Its smaller relative ,the Little Egret Egretta garzetta { Ardea garzetta} is commoner in western and southern Europe and is a resident bird in the extreme south of the UK.

Purple Heron


Purple Heron in flight

Originally posted to Flickr.
Originally posted to Flickr. | Source

Grey heron and the Purple heron


The Purple Heron . Ardea purperea

The Purple heron Ardea purpurea is a species that occurs in central and southern Europe and south and eastern Asia. The European populations is migratory they also winter in Africa. It is a marsh bird,building in tall reeds and other aquatic vegetation,and rarely perches in trees. They lay three eggs of a greenish -ash colour and lack any gloss or lustre.

This is a very beautiful bird and one of considerable size,the length when full grown is just short of three feet.The mature birds have a crest {sometimes it is called the Crested Purple Heron},of long slender feathers on the hind of the head which are of a greenish-black colour.At the lower part of the neck there are similar feathers which are whitish-purple,and on the scapulars and upper part of the back are also slender and produced feathers but these are bright purple.

The top of the head is black with bright green reflections. The throat white,the sides of the neck bright russet. There are three longitudinal stripes of black on the neck,one on each side from the eyes downwards and the third behind but not extending to the lower part of the neck. The lower neck is mottled with longitudinal spots of russet,purple and black. The back,wings and the tail are reddish ash with purple reflections. The thighs and abdomen russet. The flanks are bright purple as is the breast.

The Bill and naked skin around the eyes are bright yellow. The irides are orange -yellow. The under parts of the toes,the rear of the tarsi and the naked skin above the tarsal joints,yellow,and the scales on the fore parts of tarsi and upper parts of the toes greenish brown.

The young have no crest on the hind of the head,their forehead is black,the nape and cheeks bright red,the throat white and the hind part of the lower neck yellowish-white,with lines of black. The back,scapulars and wings and tail are a blackish ash colour bordered with bright russet and The thighs and belly white. A considerable part of the upper mandible is blackish but all the under one and the naked skin around the eyes are bright yellow.This colouring has led to confusion in the past and they were once described as a separate species under the name of 'African Heron'

Squacco Heron


The white wings of the Squacco heron are very obvious in flight.


Squacco Heron Ardea ralloides.

This bird too,is some times placed in the order some authorities. this species has the legs {Tarsi} much shorter than the typical herons,and in this respect approaches the Bitterns,but, in many habits of its character,it has more resemblance to the herons,and, like them it is said to nest in trees.

It is another beautiful bird,and,though neither so striking or so showy in its plumage as the White heron {Egret} which have produced feathers,it makes a very remarkable contrast to them. The feathers on top of the head are yellow,margined with black. The crest which consists of very long and very narrow pendent feathers,has each feather white in the centre and black on the margins. The throat is white,the neck,scapulars and the upper part of the back is bright russet,and the produced feathers,which are very loose are a rich maroon colour. All the rest of the plumage is pure white. The basal part of the bill is azure,and the tip black. The naked skin round the eyes is greenish grey. The garter or naked space above the tarsal joint is very short. The bright white wings are only really obvious during flight.

From the shortness of the tarsi,and the unfeathered part of the tibiae above the joint,it may be inferred that these birds do not wade so far into the waters or fish so habitually as the more typical herons. They do catch fish,but their food consists fully as much of insects,shelled molluscs and the smaller crustaceans.

It is a species of the southern Mediterranean countries ,parts of eastern Europe and western Asia.

Night heron { Black Crowned}

Taken in Canada
Taken in Canada | Source

Night Herons.

The term in Europe usually alludes to the Black crowned heron, Nycticorax nycticorax, while the American night heron {or squawk} often alludes to the Yellow crowned night heron Nyctanassa violacea,formerly placed in the genus Nycticorax.

The Black Crowned Heron ,which in some characteristics is intermediate between the herons and the Bitterns,but which appears to resemble the Herons more in its manners,has been described in a separate genus. They get the genus name of Nycticorax,which roughly translates as 'night croaker' from the loud and disagreeable noise they make at night,and as their common name suggests are mainly nocturnal in their haunts.

They nest build their nests in small trees and bushes. Wilson, stated " that in America they build in trees,and assemble in greater numbers in some breeding places, than the even the common Heron."

In Europe the birds build a small stick nest in which the female deposits 3-5 eggs,from April onwards. They raise just one brood per season. They feed in near dark conditions,searching for fish in typical Heron fashion at the waters edge. They also eat large insects.

Yellow crowned night heron



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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, you images would be appreciated Thank you for your kind offer. Best wishes to you.


      hello Devika , thank you too,for your kind and encouraging comments Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      You might like some of my pictures. Let me know if you can use Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. If you have other stories to include Reddish Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tri-colored Heron, etc. please advise. I have pictures of them, too.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Amazing photos! Your research is thorough to the point.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      You are very welcome and thank you for your kind and thoughtful comments they are much appreciated. Best wishes to you.

    • lctodd1947 profile image


      3 years ago from USA

      Well you certainly have done your homework on this great information. I love the White Egret and the Purple Heron and then the Yellow Crowned Night Heron. You have done an excellent job in writing this information.

      Love it and thanks for sharing.


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