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Birds of South Florida: Tricolored Heron

Updated on May 11, 2016
The Tricolored Heron... a beautiful and intriguing bird
The Tricolored Heron... a beautiful and intriguing bird

Meet the Tricolored Heron

For birdwatchers everywhere, this planet is a dream and a delight. There are so many species of birds and each one of them is unique.

They vary in color and habits, in foraging techniques, in what they eat, in how they raise their young, and how they interact with each other. Some birds are only spotted high in the tree tops. Others forage on the ground or near water.

Today we are going to take a look at a coastal bird, the Tricolored Heron, or Egretta Tricolor. It is a medium sized heron. These birds inhabit the coastlines of the southeastern United States, Mexico, the Caribbean islands and northern parts of Central and South America. They are a unique attraction here in South Florida.

Let's take a closer look at these interesting birds.

Tricolored heron resting on rock wall at water's edge
Tricolored heron resting on rock wall at water's edge

Field Guide For Quick Identification

Breeding Adult
Non Breeding Adult
Juvenile
Slate Blue Body, slight rust back of neck
Slate blue body, slight rust back of neck
Rusty red head, back of neck, upper back and front part of wings
White throat and foreneck
White underside of neck and belly
White underside of neck and belly
Tall, slender pinkish or bluish legs
Tall, slender yellowish legs
Tall, slender yellowish legs
Blue face, blue bill tipped with black
Yellow face and bill
Yellowish gray bill
Reddish eyes
Reddish eyes
Yellowish gray eyes
This is a general guide. Variations between individual birds within the species are common.

Identification of the Tricolored Heron

So how do we identify this heron?

Once known as the Louisiana heron, this medium-sized, slender heron of the southeastern United States, is usually found foraging along the water's edge. They can wade in water as deep as around seven inches.

The Tricolored Heron has a dusky slate blue gray body with a slightly rusty colored back of the neck, while the underside of the neck is white along with a white belly. It is has a long, slender neck and bill, and notably long legs. This bird is a medium sized heron, measuring about 26 inches long and weighs 13 ounces, with a 36-inch wingspan.

During breeding season, the Tricolored Heron sports a short white head plume not notably present in other months along with a buffy white throat and fore-neck, a blue face, a blue bill tipped with black. The eyes are reddish, and the legs pinkish or bluish.

Non-breeding adults have a yellow face, bill, and legs; the throat and fore-neck are white, the body is slate blue with slight rust color on neck.

Juvenile Tricolored Herons lack the blue of the parents and instead are adorned with the rich chestnut red on the head, neck, upper back, and the front parts of the wings, with white on the underside of the neck and belly. They have yellowish eyes and yellowish gray beak and legs.

Images of Breeding and Non-Breeding Adults; Juveniles

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Non breeding adult: Notice the more yellowish legs and beak rather than the more bluish during breeding season.Adult female. Note reddish colored eye in adult.Breeding adult male tricolored heron in breeding stage, plumes down. Note the more bluish legs and face. Breeding Adult, white plumes clearly displayedBreeding adult in display stanceBreeding adult. White plumes showing.Juvenile bird. Notice the yellow eyes, grayish yellow beak and rust colored body with white underside.
Non breeding adult: Notice the more yellowish legs and beak rather than the more bluish during breeding season.
Non breeding adult: Notice the more yellowish legs and beak rather than the more bluish during breeding season. | Source
Adult female. Note reddish colored eye in adult.
Adult female. Note reddish colored eye in adult.
Breeding adult male tricolored heron in breeding stage, plumes down. Note the more bluish legs and face.
Breeding adult male tricolored heron in breeding stage, plumes down. Note the more bluish legs and face.
Breeding Adult, white plumes clearly displayed
Breeding Adult, white plumes clearly displayed
Breeding adult in display stance
Breeding adult in display stance
Breeding adult. White plumes showing.
Breeding adult. White plumes showing.
Juvenile bird. Notice the yellow eyes, grayish yellow beak and rust colored body with white underside.
Juvenile bird. Notice the yellow eyes, grayish yellow beak and rust colored body with white underside.

Quick Identification

The photos to the right display the differences between breeding and non breeding adults, and juvenile tricolored herons. You can enlarge the photos for detail.

Use the table below to quickly identify Tricolored Herons in the field and to distinguish between breeding and non breeding adults, as well as juvenile birds. Note that the male and female of the species are largely the same in coloration, although the males do tend to be larger than the females.

There is also a quick reference for similar species and how to distinguish them.


Similar Species

The Tricolored Heron is sometimes mistaken for two other similar species here in South Florida:

  • The Little Blue Heron is slightly smaller and stockier, and lacks white belly, white line down throat, and white head plumes.
  • The Great Blue Heron is much larger, lacks the white belly, and has a paler neck.

Examples of Habitat

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Tricolored herons are often found at water's edgeThis freshwater canal is a typical setting for these birdsThis old bridge cut off from the mainland is a perfect oasis for nesting birdsTricolored herons can adjust easily to urban settings, such as this freshwater canal beside a busy street, if given a reasonable amount of peace.Tricolored Herons prefer thick vegetation for nesting.
Tricolored herons are often found at water's edge
Tricolored herons are often found at water's edge
This freshwater canal is a typical setting for these birds
This freshwater canal is a typical setting for these birds
This old bridge cut off from the mainland is a perfect oasis for nesting birds
This old bridge cut off from the mainland is a perfect oasis for nesting birds
Tricolored herons can adjust easily to urban settings, such as this freshwater canal beside a busy street, if given a reasonable amount of peace.
Tricolored herons can adjust easily to urban settings, such as this freshwater canal beside a busy street, if given a reasonable amount of peace.
Tricolored Herons prefer thick vegetation for nesting.
Tricolored Herons prefer thick vegetation for nesting.

Habitat

Where do Tricolored Herons live?

They inhabit the southeastern United States coastlines, as well as Mexico, the Caribbean islands, and parts of northern South America. They winter in Central America.

They are mostly a solitary bird except during breeding season. They forage around bodies of water, wading into shallow water, usually up to seven inches deep.

These herons have adapted well to urban areas as well, as seen in the accompanying pictures. However, it is crucial that they remain undisturbed during nesting periods, as the young can be flushed from the nest very early.

Primarily a coastal bird, the Tricolored Heron is most commonly found in saltwater wetlands, such as shallow salt marshes, coastal lagoons, mudflats, tidal creeks and mangrove swamps. However, you can find them in freshwater canals, streams, and lakes as well.

Where are Tricolored Herons native to?

Tricolored Herons are native to....

You will find Tricolored Herons in the southeastern United States, places such Texas all the way to Florida coastlines and up to North Carolina, among other coastlines. You will also find them in Mexico, the Caribbean islands, Central America and northern South America.

Did You Know...?

  • Tricolored herons have diurnal vision, specialized for daytime foraging. They have extreme accuracy, being able to detect and see moving fish easily underneath the surface of even agitated water (during windy conditions).
  • The young of Tricolored Herons have a mortality rate three times as high as most of their counterparts. This is due in part to the ability of the young to move around at an early age and wander away from the safety of the nest.
  • These birds are extremely sensitive to high mercury levels in the fish they eat, which causes their egg shells to be very thin.

What Do Tricolored Herons Eat?

Tricolored Herons eat mostly fish, but will also eat amphibians, such as frogs or salamanders, if they can catch them. They will eat insects and crustaceans of any kind.

You will often see them wading into shallow water and shuffling their feet. This will cause small fish to dart short distances. They have a sharp eye and when a fish is within striking distance, they will thrust their long, slender neck forward and spear the fish.

They will also spread their wings randomly to create shadows that scare the fish and cause them to move.

Video demonstrating Tricolored Heron behavior while foraging

Tricolored Heron on Nest

Mother heron on nest
Mother heron on nest

Can You Find Her?

Where's Waldo?  Nesting Tricolored Heron in a sea of vegetation where it has hidden its nest.  Enlarge picture for detail.
Where's Waldo? Nesting Tricolored Heron in a sea of vegetation where it has hidden its nest. Enlarge picture for detail.

Nesting

Tricolored Herons nest in colonies, near other herons or mixed species of birds. They usually nest by building large platforms of sticks in reeds, in thick vegetation on high banks, or low lying branches of trees and structure.

From February until May, it is the male who begins to build the nest. Once he has found a mate, the female will help to finish the nest of loose twigs, usually up to 3.5 meters above the water in a shaded area. Herons are monogamous and very devoted parents.

They will lay 3 to 5 bluish eggs and both parents will take turns incubating the eggs for approximately 22 days. The young can start moving short distances away from the nest as early as 14 - 17 days, beginning to perch at the side of the nest, or in some cases, wander through thick vegetation near the nest, finding their own insects and other food between parental feedings.

The young will leave the nest around 21 days and will leave the colony around 51to 56 days.

Nesting Birds and Young

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Mother heron on nestFour bluish eggsTwo eggs left and hatchlings after four weeksParent bird displaying breeding plumageParent bird with wings spread over youngDisplayingYoung hatchlings, a few days oldJuveniles at two weeksJuvenile birds at three weeksJuvenile bird at three and a half weeksJuvenile four weeks, away from nest
Mother heron on nest
Mother heron on nest
Four bluish eggs
Four bluish eggs
Two eggs left and hatchlings after four weeks
Two eggs left and hatchlings after four weeks
Parent bird displaying breeding plumage
Parent bird displaying breeding plumage
Parent bird with wings spread over young
Parent bird with wings spread over young
Displaying
Displaying
Young hatchlings, a few days old
Young hatchlings, a few days old
Juveniles at two weeks
Juveniles at two weeks
Juvenile birds at three weeks
Juvenile birds at three weeks
Juvenile bird at three and a half weeks
Juvenile bird at three and a half weeks
Juvenile four weeks, away from nest
Juvenile four weeks, away from nest
Two young hatchlings wandering near nest
Two young hatchlings wandering near nest

Predation

The young of Tricolored Herons are vulnerable to attack. The parents will defend the nest vigorously against predators. However, animals such as raccoons, snakes, crows and ravens will readily eat the eggs or young hatchlings. Owls will also take the young. Larger birds of prey, such as osprey, are opportunistic and will readily take them if given the chance.

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Tricolored Heron in Mid Flight

Tricolored Heron in flight
Tricolored Heron in flight | Source

Identifying the Tricolored Heron by Flight Pattern

The Tricolored Heron flies with legs extended and the head drawn back to the shoulders using strong, steady, evenly spaced wing beats. Although it usually flies alone, on occasion they have been observed flying in small flocks.

It will rapidly descend from flight by partly folding its wings and rocking from side to side in a manner similar to a falling leaf.

With the exception of South American populations, most tricoloured herons migrate with birds from southern and eastern USA migrating southwards to Central America and the Caribbean.

Tricolored Heron with Neck Retracted

Have You Seen These Birds?

Do you live in a place where you are able to observe these birds?

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Threats to the Species

While the Tricolored Heron is not on the endangered list, like many other animals, it is threatened in parts of its range by disturbance, habitat loss and pollution.

While they have been quick to adapt to urban environments, they are particularly vulnerable to human interference while nesting, as it can cause breeding birds to abandon their nests and eggs. This threat was particularly significant during the late 1800s, when hunters disturbed tricolored heron nests while targeting other bird species in mixed colonies for the plume trade. They are also susceptible to toxins and pesticides which build up in their bodies from the food they eat, including high mercury levels, which cause their eggs to have very thin shells that break easily.

The Tricolored Heron may occasionally be hunted for food, and its eggs may be harvested. Culls are also occasionally permitted around aquaculture farms to limit the impacts of this species’ predation upon farmed crustacean stocks. In the Florida Everglades, the tricolored heron population has been in decline as a result of habitat degradation and associated decreased food availability.

These birds have benefited by such protected places as the National Wildlife Refuge System along the coast. It is also profiting from the construction and maintenance of artificial islands on the Atlantic coast, which protects nesting birds from terrestrial mammalian predators that cannot access the islands.

Other things that help tremendously are including designated pathways at a certain distance from nesting sites to prevent nest disturbance.

What Can You Do?

The Tricolored Heron is a beautiful bird that we share this planet with. I hope you have enjoyed a closer look at this fascinating creature.

The important thing is to remember that we all have a responsibility to share this planet with the other creatures that live on it and show respect for all of them. There are several things we can do to help these beautiful birds.

First of all, if you do come across them in the wild, you have been given a real gift. Show appreciation by observing them as unobtrusively as possible. Keep a respectful distance and do not let your presence or your gear interfere with their daily routines.

If you find a nest or are observing young, please remember to keep a respectful distance also. This is very important for young birds, as they are mobile quickly and can wander from the nests and away from their parent's protection. Also, some adults have been known to abandon nests after human interference. Be very careful when observing nesting colonies.

Educate others. The more you learn about these beautiful creatures, the more you will come to love them. Most of our interference with species of animals, birds and other wildlife comes from ignorance (not knowing), and misunderstanding, not outright disregard. Continue to educate yourself, and, in turn, educate others. Share your knowledge with others around you and inspire them to learn more also. The more people know, the more they understand and the more they will DO to protect these beautiful creatures. In this case, actions really do speak louder than words.

Knowledge is responsibility!

Let's all do what we can to preserve the environment to the best of our ability so that countless other generations will also be able to enjoy these birds and see them the way that they were meant to be seen and enjoyed.... always wild and free!

Tricolored Heron in natural habitat

Note: All pictures included with this article were taken in south Florida and provided courtesy of FVH Photography, all rights reserved.

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