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Crowned Beauties of the Marsh

Updated on January 31, 2016
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron of Bastrop, Tx.
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron of Bastrop, Tx. | Source

Yellow-crown Species Overview

Diet: fish primarily, but also crustaceans, crabs, mussels, lizards, snakes and other prey

Average life span: 21 years or more

Size: 23 to 26 in (58 to 66 cm)

Weight: 25 to 36 oz (727 to 1014 g)

Habitat: Both fresh and saltwater aquatic habitats, waterways and marsh forests

One of the first birds I recall getting a clear good photograph of was a Night-Heron. I didn’t know what it was at the time. My ability to identify birds back then was limited to the more common songbirds. That was a shame, because I lived in the right area to really get into water birds. It was only when I made a point of getting deeper into my love of birds that I realized my serious mistake in labeling the picture a Great Blue Heron. Yeah, Great blues are much bigger, different coloring and . . . boy was that a goof.

Anyway, I recently had a new chance to observe these birds closer to home where I could have longer observation times and get better photographs to go with their Yellow-crowned cousin’s portraits. Now, with field observations and experience, I am learning to appreciate these two birds and their ways more and more.

The Night-Herons are both mostly nocturnal tropical birds, hence their names, but they will show themselves during daylight hours, mostly during nesting season. The bird’s habitat of preference includes both fresh and saltwater areas, but finding them isn’t easy unless you know where to look. During the day, they mostly keep to high tree tops for safety or thick brush.

I have seen Yellow-crowns during daylight hours from April through November; mostly at mid-afternoon in canes or cattail cover. They were either perching on boardwalks or fishing at water’s edge. Black-crowns, on the other hand, have not been as easy to spot. My only sightings have been in July, early in the morning, and in November at mid-afternoon. Both times they were perching in deep cover. I considered both sightings sheer luck as I wasn’t specifically looking for them.

A more systematic search for these birds through a survey of Ebird sighting records would be worth doing if I wanted to track down a flock or find a rookery. I will speak more on that at the end of the article. Also see my Road Trip Birding article. This includes a video on How to Use Ebird.

Black-crown Species Overview

Diet: Crustaceans, fish, insects, lizards, small mammals and other prey

Average life span: 15 years

Size: 22 to 27 in (50 to 70 cm)

Weight: 23 to 28 oz (650 to 800 g)

Habitat: Aquatic wetlands, waterways and inland marsh forests

Yellow-crown Gallery

Young Juvenile in tall grasses
Young Juvenile in tall grasses | Source
Juvenile fishing along shore line
Juvenile fishing along shore line | Source
Adult in spring
Adult in spring | Source

Night-Heron Identification

The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is the more colorful of the two. It has an upright posture and the signature thick bill with amber eyes. The front of the crown is yellowish during breeding season with long white feathers hanging over the back of the head. In the fall and winter the crown is cream-colored. The head is black with white cheeks. Its breast and underpants are slate gray while the wings are streaked black and grey. Their legs are yellow. Juveniles are streaked gray and white, showing black crown feathers.

The Black-crowned Night-Heron has a more hunched over posture with a formal glossy black back and white breast plumage. Wings shade from light to dark gray. Their crown feathers are black. During breeding the crown is adorned with two long swept back narrow white feathers contrasting against their black heads and back. A Black-crown’s eyes are bright red. Their legs are yellow until breeding season, when they turn pink. Young Black-crowns are dark brown with some white streaking, less streaked looking than Yellow-crowned juveniles. As they age, they become more streaked, but unlike Yellow-crowns, they get their crowns earlier, as seen in the Black-crown Gallery pictures.

Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior

Night-Heron Feeding

Both birds are fish eaters and hunt primarily by still fishing. They may stand or hunch forward with the sun to their backs, beak down in a posture called “peering over,” according to Sibley’s Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. They will look down into a shadow they make with an open wing. This cuts the glare allowing the bird to see fish swimming by and tricks the fish into mistaking the shady spot as a place of safety; but Night-Herons are not limited to fish.

Yellow-crowns vary their diets with crustaceans and occasional small snakes. They hunt by waiting in a likely spot. When crabs come by, the legs are removed and the body swallowed. In Texas, we see them eating crawfish as well, also declawed first.

The Black-crown is well-known for stealing both eggs and chicks from other water bird nests. Sibley also mentions that Black-crown Night-Herons are known to bait-fish; putting twigs, flowers, insects or even popcorn on the water and wait for a nibble. In the below video you will see a Black-crowned Night-Heron catching a dragonfly and using it for bait. His first catch can be seen after the 4:00 video point in time. Also see my article on other birds using tools.

Black-crown Gallery

Young Black-Crown at Brazos Bend NWR
Young Black-Crown at Brazos Bend NWR | Source
Juvenile Black-crown with streaks and black crown feathers
Juvenile Black-crown with streaks and black crown feathers | Source
Adult Black-crown in deep cover at bottom of a canal bank
Adult Black-crown in deep cover at bottom of a canal bank | Source

Courtship and Nesting

Night-Herons are seasonally monogamous birds that nest in colonies near water. They reach breeding maturity around two years of age.

The Black-crown begins courtship and breeding in February through July according to Dr. Oberholster’s The Bird Life of Texas. Colonies are located in forests, wooded swamps or marshes. This likely explains why I have found it difficult to find them. Per Cornell Lab of Ornithology, courtship involves the male gathering nesting material to begin the building process and protect territory. When a female chooses a mate, she will take over the building. The nest is built as a platform of sticks with finer materials lining the inside, located anywhere in the rookery area from up in trees to on the ground under brush. A pair will have only one brood per year consisting of 3 to 5 greenish-blue eggs. Chicks are born helpless and nearly bald with closed eyes. They can leave the nest by one month of age to perch on nearby branches, but cannot fly before six weeks. A colony can include many birds building close together, sometimes, dozens in the same tree. Colony locations can endure for up to 50 years.

As the Yellow-crown often breeds in mixed colonies with other water birds, they can be easier to find than Black-crowns. They start courtship and nest building later in March. See the below video to witness the beautiful displays the males use to attract mates. Their colonies are usually smaller, but can include several hundred pairs if on a protected island. Platform nests are built in trees, over water most of the time. A colony site can last for 20 years or more. Again, there will only be one brood per season of two to six blue-green eggs.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron Courtship

Night-Heron Ranges

Like other Herons, Egrets and Bitterns, Night-Herons are prone to post-breeding dispersal. My Sibley source, previously mentioned, states that they fan out in every direction, so are prone to moving into territories that may not have regular populations. Many will remain in their new homes and found new colonies. The Black-crown has built a vast territory and population due to this. The Yellow-crown, to a lesser degree.

The Black-crown is presently found on every continent but Australia and the Polar Regions. In the Americas, they range from the tip of South America and northward into Canada.

The Yellow-crown is a bird of the American Continents only. They can be found in Eastern U.S. States, the Caribbean, the Galapagos Islands and only as far south as the eastern coast of Brazil. Populations seem to keep to both western and eastern coastal areas from Mexico southward. In North America, they can be found much further inland from the eastern half of Texas, up the Mississippi Valley into the Great Lakes and all along the Eastern seaboard.

While prone to the dangers of coastal living (hurricanes, oil spills, wetlands destruction, etc.) both birds are listed as of least concern. They are often used as environmental indictors for the health of a habitat.

Coming out for Sun

Adult Black-crown Night-Heron sunning himself.  Others are hiding in the deep shade of the brush.
Adult Black-crown Night-Heron sunning himself. Others are hiding in the deep shade of the brush. | Source

Last Word

Night-Herons may be a bit hard to find, but that makes them special sought after birds for life lists. To find these illusive birds, Ebird’s species mapping tool under the explore data sub-heading is of great value. I would suggest anyone seeking a specific bird to use these tools. To see more about using these tools see the Exploring Data helps which links you to five explanations on how to use the site.

Happy Birding

Finding your Bird

EBird Explore Data Tab
EBird Explore Data Tab | Source

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


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    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 

      2 years ago from Essex, UK

      Thank you for this article Sherry. I come from the UK, but I have visited Florida on several occasions and seen both of these birds. Their shape is quite characteristic and I think very attractive, and I particularly like the yellow-crowned night-heron. One of the best pictures I've ever taken of a bird was of a yellow-crowned night heron photographed standing in a pine tree on the Gulf Coast. Thanks again - an informative and well laid out article. Alun


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