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Ardeidae Index – Herons, Egrets, And Bitterns
The Egrets

Ardeidae Index – Herons, Egrets, And Bitterns

Herons, egrets, and bitterns are wading birds of the Ardeidae (heron) family. They fall under the order Pelicaniformes together with storks and pelicans. Waders are a diverse group of birds that feed by wading through shallow waters. Many waders also have long, flexible necks and long bills for foraging in water or spearing prey. Birds in this group also include ibises, spoonbills, storks, cranes, and flamingos.

A characteristic feature of Ardeidae species is that they fly with their necks retracted, unlike other waders that fly with their necks outstretched.

There is no clear distinction between herons and egrets. Egrets typically have white plumage (although dark morphs are common) and develop fancy plumes during the breeding season. The vast majority of egrets belong to the Egretta genus, with only one species belonging to the genus Bulbulcus. The herons are a more diverse group and include the pond herons and night herons.

Defining lines remain blurred, as there are several exceptions. For instance, the great white egret and the intermediate egret both belong to the heron genus Ardea, despite having white plumage and sporting long plumes during the breeding season. On the other hand, species like the little blue heron, tricolored heron, and the reef herons are essentially egrets and fall under the Egretta genus. The term “heron” is often used broadly for herons, egrets, and bitterns.

The bitterns are distinctly different from the herons and egrets. They are stockier with shorter necks. Moreover, they have ten retrices (tail feathers), unlike other Ardeidae members, that have twelve. Bitterns are also more secretive and have expertly camouflaged plumage.

Let’s take a look at the different genera and species:

Egrets

1. Genus Bubulcus

There is only one species in this genus.

1.1. Cattle Egret, Bubulcus ibis

Cattle Egret
Image By Dick Daniels

Description: The non-breeding Cattle Egret has mainly white plumage, a yellow bill, and grayish-yellow legs. Breeding birds may have an orange-buff crown, back, and breast with a red bill, eyes, and legs.

Distribution: The Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia.

Habitat: Dry grassy areas.

Diet: Mainly insects, but also earthworms, spiders, lizards, and amphibians.

Similar species:

  • Great Egret – The great Egret is much larger, and has a proportionally longer neck.
  • Little Blue Heron juvenile – Thew white juvenile little blue heron has bicolored bill while the cattle egret has a yellow bill.
  • Little Egret – The cattle egret has a yellow bill, whereas the little egret has a black bill.
  • Snowy Egret – The cattle egret has a yellow bill, whereas the snowy egret has a black bill.
Cattle Egret non-breeding plumage
Non-Breeding Plumage (Image By Dick Daniels)

Cattle Egret breeding plumage
Breeding Plumage (Image By Dick Daniels)

Breeding Plumage (Image By Dick Daniels)
Cattle Egret on the tree
Image By Dick Daniels
Cattle Egret flight
Image By Christiano Crolle

2. Genus Egretta

These species are medium-sized herons, mostly breeding in warmer climates.

2.1. Chinese Egret, Egretta eulophotes

Chinese Egret
Image By Andres Siani

Description: The Chinese Egret has white plumage. Nonbreeding has a dusky bill with a flesh-colored base, yellow eyes, and yellow-green lores and legs. Breeding birds have long crests, bright orange bills, blue lores, black legs, and yellow feet. It is similar to the little egret, but the little egret has a darker bill and legs than the Chinese egret.

Distribution: The breeding range is confined to a small region on the eastern coasts of China, North and South Korea, and Russia. Their wintering grounds encompass Japan and South East Asia.

Habitat: Offshore islands, mangroves, mudflats, bays, and shallow tidal estuaries.

Diet: Small fish, shrimps, worms, crabs, and insects.

Conservation status: Historically, they were hunted to near extinction for their plumes. Today, the main threat they are facing is habitat loss. They are classified as vulnerable according to the IUCN.

Chinese Egret flight
Image By Jerry Oldenettel
Chinese Egret aspects
Image By Jerry Oldenettel

2.2. Dimorphic Egret, Egretta dimorpha

Image By Dick Daniels

Description: The dimorphic egret has a white morph and a dark morph. It is also considered to be a subspecies of the Little egret, Egretta garzetta dimorpha.

Distribution: East Africa and Madagascar.

Habitat: Coastal areas. They breed on coral islets and forage in tidal pools among exposed coral.

Diet: Fish, crustaceans, mollusks, insects, and aquatic invertebrates.

Dimorphic Egret white morph
White Morph (Image By Dick Daniels)
Dimorphic Egret dark morph
Dark Morph (Image By Dick Daniels)
Dimorphic Egret flight
Image By Dick Daniels

2.3. Little Egret, Egretta garzetta

Little Egret, Egretta garzetta
Image By Christiano Crolle

Description: The Little Egret has white plumage and black legs. Bare skin between eyes and bill becomes blue or red in the breeding season, and it develops two long plumes from the nape, forming a crest.

Distribution: Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Their range has expanded to the Caribbean and east coast of the United States.

Habitat: A wide range of coastal and freshwater environments, including mangroves, swamps, mudflats, reefs, rice fields, and the shores of lakes, rivers, ponds, and canals.

Diet: Mainly fish, but also crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians, small reptiles, insects, spiders, worms. On occasion, they may take small mammals and birds.

Similar species:

  • Cattle Egret – The cattle egret has a yellow bill, whereas the little egret has a black bill.
  • Chinese Egret – The little egret has a darker bill and legs than the Chinese egret.
  • Dimorphic Egret – If found in Madagascar, then it is the dimorphic Egret.
  • Great Egret – The great egret is much larger than the little egret. The great egret can be distinguished by its yellow bill and black feet.
  • Snowy Egret – The range usually distinguishes them from the little egret. However, little egrets are sometimes found in the Americas. Adult snowy egrets have yellow lores, whereas little egrets usually do not.
Little Egret in the water
Image By Dick Daniels
Little Egret on the grass
Image By Dick Daniels
Little Egret closeup
Image By Dick Daniels
Little Egret habitat
Image By Sandy Cole

2.4. Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens

Description: The dark morph of the reddish egret has slate-blue upperparts and a reddish head and neck. The white morph has all-white plumage and black legs and feet.

Similar species:

  • Little blue heron juvenile – The white morph reddish egret has black legs, whereas the juvenile has light legs.
  • Snowy egret – The white morph reddish egret has black feet, whereas the snowy egret has yellow feet.
Reddish Egret
Image By Dick Daniels

Distribution: Southern United States to northwest South America.

Habitat: Salt flats, mangroves, cays, salt marshes, lagoons, and shores.

Diet: Fish, frogs, crustaceans, and insects.

Conservation status: Reddish egrets are at risk due to habitat destruction, which may, to a large extent, be caused by heavy and frequent tropical storms brought on by climate change. They are classified as near threatened, according to the IUCN.

Reddish Egret non-breeding white morph
Non-Breeding White Morph (Image By Dan Irizarry)
Reddish Egret breeding white morph
Breeding White Morph (Image By Ken Carregan)
Reddish Egret non-breeding dark morph
Non-Breeding Dark Morph (Image By Alan D. Wilson)
Reddish Egret breeding dark morph
Breeding Dark Morph (Image By Googie Man)

2.5. Slaty Egret, Egretta vinaceigula

Slaty Egret
Image By Neil Gray

Description: The slaty egret has grayish-blue plumage and yellow legs. It is similar to the black egret, but the slaty egret has yellow legs, whereas the black egret has black legs. The black egret is also more widespread.

Distribution: South-central Africa.

Habitat: Grassy wetlands, receding floodplains, and seasonal freshwater marshes.

Diet: Small fish, frogs, and aquatic invertebrates.

Conservation Status: Slaty egrets are threatened by habitat destruction caused by a number of human-driven factors, including cultivation, erosion, invasive plants, and overgrazing by livestock.

Slaty Egret in the water
Image By Ian White
Slaty Egret habitat
Image By Ian White

2.6. Snowy Egret, Egretta thula

Snowy Egret
Image By Dick Daniels

Description: The snowy egret has all-white plumage, a black bill, black legs, and yellow feet. The base of the bill is yellow but turns red in the breeding season.

Distribution: They are native to the Americas. Vagrants occasionally occur in Europe.

Habitat: Fresh and saltwater wetlands, riverbanks, lakesides, and estuaries.

Diet: Fish, crustaceans, small reptiles, amphibians, mollusks, worms, and insects.

Similar species:

  • Cattle Egret – The cattle egret has a yellow bill, whereas the snowy egret has a black bill.
  • Great Egret – The great egret is much larger than the snowy egret, and can be distinguished by its yellow bill and black feet.
  • Little Blue Heron (juvenile) – The juvenile snowy egret has a yellowish upper bill, whereas in the juvenile little blue heron it is bluish.
  • Little Egret – Range usually distinguishes between the little egret and the snowy egret. However, little egrets are sometimes found in the Americas. Adult snowy egrets have yellow lores, whereas little egrets usually do not.
  • Reddish Egret white morph – Reddish egret white morph: The white morph of the reddish egret has black feet, whereas the snowy egret has yellow feet.
Snowy Egret habitat
Non-Breeding Plumage (Image By Dick Daniels)
Snowy Egret closeup
Breeding Plumage (Image By Len Blummin)
Snowy Egret feet
The Snowy Egret Has Bright Yellow Feet (Image By Dick Daniels)
Snowy Egret legs
The Legs Are Black In Front And Yellow Behind (Image By Alan D. Wilson)
Snowy Egret flight
Image By Terry Ross

2.7. Black Egret (Black Heron), Egretta ardesiaca

Description: The Black Heron has bluish-black plumage, black legs, and yellow feet.

It is similar to the slaty egret, but the slaty egret has yellow legs. The black egret has black legs. Black egrets are also more widespread.

Black Heron
Image By Derek Keats

Distribution: They occur sporadically across sub-Saharan Africa.

Habitat: Shallow open waters, including marshes, river edges, lakesides, rice fields, seasonal floodplains, and tidal flats.

Diet: Small fish, crustaceans, amphibians, and aquatic insects. The black egret uses its wings like an umbrella to produce shade which attracts fish. This is called canopy feeding.

Black Heron feeding
Canopy Feeding Method (Image By Steve Garvie)
Black Heron flight
Image By Ian White

2.8. Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea

Little Blue Heron
Image By Dick Daniels

Description: The Little blue heron has a bluish-gray plumage, a blue or grayish bill with a black tip, and bluish legs and feet. Juveniles have mainly white plumage, dark wing-tips, and dull greenish legs.

Distribution: The Americas.

Habitat: Wetlands, lagoons, tidal flats, ponds, streams, canals, and seasonal floodplains.

Diet: Fish, insects, crustaceans, amphibians, and even small rodents.

Little Blue Heron in the water
Image By Dick Daniels
Little Blue Heron on the tree
Image By Dick Daniels

Similar species:

  • Cattle egret – The juvenile little blue heron has a bicolored bill. The cattle egret has a yellow bill.
  • Reddish egret white morph – The white morph reddish egret has black legs, whereas the juvenile little blue heron has pale legs.
  • Snowy egret (juvenile) – The juvenile snowy egret has a yellowish upper bill, whereas in the juvenile little blue heron it is bluish.
  • Tricolored heron – The tricolored heron has some white on its neck and has a white belly, whereas the little blue heron doesn’t.
Little Blue Heron habitat
Image By Dick Daniels

2.9. Tricolored Heron, Egretta tricolor

Image By Dick Daniels
Tricolored Heron habitat
Image By Dick Daniels

Description: The tricolored heron has blue-gray upperparts and neck, a white line along the neck, a yellow or gray bill with a black tip, and a white belly.

Distribution: The Americas.

Habitat: Coastal environments, such as estuaries, mangroves, salt marshes, lagoons, and vegetated islands. Outside the breeding season, they can also be found around freshwater habitats.

Diet: Fish, crustaceans, reptiles, and insects.

It is similar to the little blue heron. But the tricolored heron has some white on its neck and has a white belly.

Tricolored Heron juvenile
Juvenile (Image By Nick Schooley)
Tricolored Heron adult
Image By Dick Daniels
Tricolored Heron closeup
Image By Dick Daniels
Tricolored Heron in the water
Image By Dick Daniels
Tricolored Heron in flight
Image By Dick Daniels

2.10. Eastern Reef Heron (Pacific Reef Heron), Egretta sacra

Eastern Reef Heron
Image By John Feather

Description: The eastern reef heron has two morphs. The dark morph has a charcoal-gray plumage and a white stripe on the chin. The less common light morph has white plumage. Both variants have a brown bill, golden-yellow eyes, and greenish lores.

Distribution: Asia and Australasia.

Habitat: Tidal habitats, including rocky shores, coral reefs, and also occur in freshwater environments near the coast.

Diet: Fish, crustaceans, and mollusks.

Eastern Reef Heron white morph
White Morph (Image By Glen Fergus)
Eastern Reef Heron dark morph
Dark Morph (Image By Glen Fergus)

2.11. Western Reef Heron, Egretta gularis

Western Reef Heron
Image By Nik Borrow

Description: The Western Reef Heron has two morphs. The dark morph has a charcoal-gray plumage and a whitish throat. The less common light morph has white plumage.

Both variants have a yellow bill, but some have a black bill. They have thick yellow legs.

Distribution: Africa and Asia.

Habitat: Coastal wetlands and mangroves.

Diet: Fish, crustaceans, and mollusks.

Western Reef Heron habitat
Image By ChiKro

2.12. White-Faced Heron, Egretta novaehollandiae

Description: The white-faced heron has mainly blue-gray plumage, with a variable amount of white on the face and throat.

Distribution: New Zealand and Australasia.

Habitat: Fresh and saltwater wetlands, shores, salt marshes, tidal flats, pastureland, grasslands, and cultivated lands. They also frequent harbors, beaches, golf courses, orchards, and even gardens with fish ponds.

Diet: Fish, frogs, small reptiles, insects, and aquatic invertebrates.

White-Faced Heron closeup
Image By Dick Daniels
White-Faced Heron habitat
Image By Dick Daniels
White-Faced Heron in flight
Image By Birdsaspoetry

Herons

1. Genus Agamia

1.1. Agami Heron, Agamia agami

Agami Heron
Image By David Rodriguez Arias
Agami Heron distribution
Image By Gossip Guy

Description: The Agami Heron has bluish upperparts, a light chestnut neck and underparts, a white line down the center of the neck, and relatively short yellow legs.

Range: Central America and northern South America.

Habitat: Swamp forests, mangroves, forest streams, and freshwater wetlands. Preference for shade and overhanging vegetation means that it is rarely seen.

Conservation Status: Vulnerable. Likely due to habitat loss, but more data is needed to understand this rare and secretive species.

2. Genus Ardea

These are powerful birds with large spear-like bills, long necks, and long legs. They hunt by waiting motionless or stalking their prey in shallow water before seizing it with a sudden lunge.

2.1. Great Egret, (Great White Egret), Ardea alba

The great egret was placed under the genus Egretta in the past with the egrets but now falls under the herons.

Great White Egret
Image By Ted Grussing
Great White Egret distribution
Image By Cephas

Description: The great egret has white plumage, a yellow bill, and black legs. It is slightly larger than the great blue or gray herons.

Range: The Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia.

Habitat: Fresh and saltwater wetlands. They breed in colonies around lakes, marshes, estuaries, and islands.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Similar species:

  • Cattle Egret – The great egret is much bigger and has a proportionally longer neck.
  • Great Blue Heron – The white morph of great blue heron has gray legs, whereas the great egret has black legs. The great blue heron has a thicker neck and bill.
  • Intermediate Egret – The great egret is larger than the intermediate egret, and has a proportionally longer neck.
  • Little Egret – The great egret is much larger than the little egret and can be distinguished by its yellow bill and black feet.
  • Snowy Egret – The great egret is much larger than the snowy egret. The great egret can be distinguished by its yellow bill and black feet.
Great Egret breeding plumage
Breeding Plumage (Image By Sandy Cole)
Great Egret non-breeding plumage
Non-Breeding Plumage (Image By Dick Daniels)

2.2. Intermediate Egret (Yellow-Billed Egret), Ardea intermedia

It is similar to the great egret, but the great egret is larger with a proportionally longer neck. The upper bill of the great egret nearly aligns with the top of its head, whereas the upper bill of the Intermediate egret bill is lower relative to its head.

Intermediate Egret
Image By Alpsdake

Description: The intermediate egret has white plumage, dark legs, and a relatively thick, yellow bill. Breeding birds may have a reddish or black bill, greenish-yellow gape skin, loose filamentous plumes on their breast and back, and dull yellow or pink on their upper legs. The plumage may vary regionally.

Range: Europe, Asia, Australasia.

Habitat: Shallow fresh or coastal waters with submerged vegetation. Habitats include marshes, flooded fields, rice fields, brackish lakes, and saltwater lakes.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Intermediate Egret closeup
Image By Lin Sun Fong
Intermediate Egret in flight
Image By Lip Kee Yap

2.3. Black-Headed Heron, Ardea melanocephala

Black-Headed Heron
Image By Craig Adam

Description: The Black-headed Heron has dark gray upperparts, paler underparts, a white throat, and white underwings.

Range: Sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar.

Habitat: Partially flooded grasslands, damp pastures, and marshes. They also occur in estuaries, agricultural land, on coastal flats, and along rivers and lakes.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Black-Headed Heron closeup
Image By Arno Meintjies
Black-Headed Heron in flight
Image By Dick Daniels

2.4. Cocoi Heron, Ardea cocoi

Cocoi Heron
Image By Dario Niz

Description: The cocoi heron has gray wings, a mainly white neck, and a black cap that extends below the eyes.

Range: Central and South America.

Habitat: Swamps, estuaries, and the shores of lakes and rivers. They may also feed in gallery forests, grasslands, and along beaches.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Cocoi Heron habitat
Image By Cláudio Timm
Cocoi Heron closeup
Image By Gustavo Duran

2.5. Goliath Heron, Ardea goliath

Goliath Heron
Image By Dick Daniels

Description: The goliath heron is the largest heron. It has a gray back and upper wings and a chestnut-colored head, neck, crest, under-wings, and belly. Its chin is white, and it has a black and white-streaked fore-neck.

Range: Europe, Asia, Africa.

Habitat: Swamps, mangroves, wetlands, lakes, river deltas, and reefs.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Similar species:

  • Gray Heron – The gray heron has a white neck, whereas the goliath heron’s neck is chestnut-colored with a black and white streaked fore-neck.
  • Purple Heron – The goliath heron is substantially larger and has more pronounced black streaks on the neck than the purple heron.
Goliath Heron habitat
Image By Dick Daniels
Goliath Heron closeup
Image By Arno Meintjies

2.6. Gray Heron, Ardea cinerea

Gray Heron
Image By Cristiano Crolle

Description: The gray heron has mainly gray upperparts and off-white underparts. It has a white head with a black supercilium and a pinkish-yellow bill.

Range: Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia.

Habitat: Lowland watery habitats including lakes, reservoirs, rivers, marshes, ponds, flooded fields, lagoons, estuaries, and beaches.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Similar species:

  • Great Blue Heron – but the ranges do not overlap.
  • Goliath Heron – The gray heron has a white neck, whereas the goliath heron’s neck is chestnut-colored with a black and white-streaked fore-neck.
  • Purple Heron – The purple heron has stripes on the sides of the neck, whereas the gray heron has a white neck.

2.7. Great-Billed Heron, Ardea sumatrana

Great-Billed Heron
Image By Ralph Green

Description: The great-billed heron is grey with a pale belly. It is similar to the purple heron, but the great-billed heron is larger and darker. And the purple heron has a chestnut-colored neck with black stripes on the sides, whereas the great- billed heron has a uniformly gray neck.

Range: South Asia and Australasia.

Habitat: Coastal environments including mangroves, coral reefs, and islands. They also occur near large rivers.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Great-Billed Heron flight
Image By Jerry Oldonettel

2.8. Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
Image By Dick Daniels

Description: The great blue heron has mainly gray plumage, a darker crown, and a lighter face.

Range: North America, Central America, and the Galapagos.

Habitat: Fresh and saltwater wetlands, marshes mangrove swamps, flooded meadows, lake edges, or shorelines.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Similar species:

  • Great Egret – The white morph of the great blue heron has gray legs, whereas the great egret has black legs. The great blue heron also has a thicker neck and bill.
  • Gray Heron – Their ranges do not overlap.
Great Blue Heron closeup
Image By Andy Jones
Great Blue Heron in flight
Image By Dick Daniels

2.9. Humblot’s Heron, Ardea humbloti

Humblot’s Heron
Image By Ross Tsai

Description: The Humblot’s Heron has a mainly gray plumage and a black crown.

Range: Madagascar, Comoro Islands, and Mayotte.

Habitat: Coastal areas, including lagoons, estuaries, bays, mangroves, tidal areas, and reefs.

Conservation Status: The Humblot’s heron is endangered due to poaching and habitat destruction.

2.10. Pied Heron, Ardea picata

Pied Heron
Image By Burtonpe – Adelaide Zoo

Description: The pied heron has a dark, slaty, grayish-black plumage and crest, with a striking white throat and breast. It has yellow eyes and a yellow bill and legs. Juveniles lack the black crest.

Range: Northern Australia, Wallacea, and New Guinea.

Habitat: Wetlands and grasslands in coastal and subcoastal areas.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Pied Heron closeup
Image By Jutta – Frankfort Zoo
Pied Heron habitat
Image By Geoff Whalan

2.11. Purple Heron, Ardea purpurea

Purple Heron
Image By Koshy Koshy

Description: The purple heron has a gray back, purple wings, and a purplish neck with dark stripes on its sides. It has a narrow yellow bill.

Range: Europe, Asia, Africa, and Madagascar.

Habitat: Densely vegetated freshwater habitats often with reed beds. Habitats include marshes, lagoons, and lakes. They also occur in mangroves, coastal wetlands, mudflats, and canals.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Purple Heron in flight
Image By Christiano Crolle
Image By Steve Garvie
Purple Heron closeup
Image By Shrikrant Rao
Purple Heron habitat
Image By Imran Shah

2.12. White-Bellied Heron, Ardea insignis

White-Bellied Heron
Image By Raju Kasambe

Description: The white-bellied heron has gray upperparts, a relatively long neck, grayish-white neck plumes, and a white chin and central underparts. Its bill is black with a greenish base and tip. It has blackish legs.

Range: Eastern Himalayas.

Habitat: Wetlands of tropical and subtropical forests, and lowland riparian environments.

Conservation Status: Critically endangered due to poaching and habitat destruction.

2.13. White-Necked Heron (Pacific heron), Ardea pacifica

White-Necked Heron
Image By Birdsaspoetry

Description: The white-necked heron has a grayish-black back and upper wings and a pale grey to white head, throat, and breast with black spots running down the center of the fore-neck and breast. Breeding birds bear plum-colored plumes on the back and breast.

Range: Australasia.

Habitat: Wetlands, grasslands near water, tidal areas, farmland dams, clay pans, and pasturelands.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

White-Necked Heron closeup
Image By David Jenkins
White-Necked Heron in flight
Image By Jim Bendon

3. Genus Ardeola

The pond herons are stocky species with short necks and thick bills which are shorter than those of Ardea species. They typically have buff or brownish backs and colored or streaked fore-necks and breasts. In summer, adults may have long neck feathers. Ardeola herons are transformed in flight, looking very white due to the brilliant white wings.

3.1. Chinese Pond Heron, Ardeola bacchus

Chinese Pond Heron
Image By Lip Kee Yap

Description: The Chinese pond heron has a yellow bill with a black tip, yellow legs, and eyes. During the breeding season, it has blue wings, a red head, neck, and breast, and a white belly. Non-breeding birds are grayish-brown mixed with white.

Range: Asia.

Habitat: Lowland shallow fresh and saltwater wetlands and ponds.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Chinese Pond Heron closeup
Image By J.J. Harrison
Chinese Pond Heron habitat
Breeding Plumage (Image By Kclama)
Chinese Pond Heron flight
Image By J.J. Harrison

3.2. Indian Pond Heron, Ardeola grayii

Indian Pond Heron habitat
Image By J.M. Garg
Indian Pond Heron
Breeding Plumage (Image By Kaipally)

Description: The Indian pond heron has a buff-brown back, white wings, yellow eyes, and a yellow bill with a black tip. Breeding birds have darker mantles.

Range: India and Africa.

Habitat: A diverse range of shallow, aquatic environments, including ponds and wetlands.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

3.3. Javan Pond Heron, Ardeola speciosa

Javan Pond Heron
Image By Dick Daniels – Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo
Javan Pond Heron distribution
Image By Cephas

Description: During the breeding season, its plumage is a combination of buff-orange, slaty, and cream-white. It has yellow eyes and legs and a yellow bill with a black tip.

Outside of the breeding season the Javan pond heron is brown, flecked with white.

Range: Southeast Asia.

Habitat: Fresh and saltwater wetlands.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Javan Pond Heron habitat
Image By Dick Daniels – Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo
Javan Pond Heron closeup
Breeding Plumage (Image By Sandy Cole)

3.4. Malagasy Pond Heron (Madagascar Pond Heron), Ardeola idae

Malagasy Pond Heron
Image By Carol Foil
Malagasy Pond Heron distribution

Description: The non-breeding Malagasy pond heron has buff, brown, and black plumage. Its bill is mainly green with a black tip, and it has yellow eyes.

Breeding birds are similar but with more white.

Range: Madagascar, Seychelles, and the east coast of Africa.

Habitat: Marshes, lakes, ponds, streams, and rice fields. In some parts, they also occur in mangroves, inland pools, and lagoon shores.

Conservation Status: They are endangered due to habitat loss and competition with the squacco heron.

Malagasy Pond Heron closeup
Image By Zak Pohlen
Malagasy Pond Heron habitat
Image By Francesco Veronesi

3.5. Rufous-Bellied Heron, Ardeola rufiventris

Rufous-Bellied Heron
Image By Ian White

Description: The rufous-bellied heron has gray upperparts, and a gray head and breast and a rufous belly, wings, and tail.

Range: Africa.

Habitat: Marshes, floodplains, reed beds, paddies, deltas, and seasonally flooded grasslands. They also occur in shallow waters along riverbanks and lakeshores, and among papyrus stands.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Rufous-Bellied Heron habitat
Image By Lip Kee Yap
Rufous-Bellied Heron in flight
Image By Ian White

3.6. Squacco Heron, Ardeola ralloides

Squacco Heron
Image By Mark S Jobling
Squacco Heron distribution
Image By Cephas

Description: The Squacco Heron has a buff-brown back, white wings, a yellow bill with a black tip, and yellow eyes. Breeding birds have a darker mantle.

Range: Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Habitat: A wide range of mainly freshwater habitats, including marshy wetlands, swamps, deltas, river valleys, deltas, lakes, ponds, and rice fields. In some parts, they occur in coastal habitats.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Squacco Heron closeup
Image By Cephas

4. Genus Butorides

The genus Butorides includes three species of small herons. Common features include black crests, blue-black wings and back, and yellow legs.

4.1. Green Heron, Butorides virescens

Green Heron
Image By Alan D. Wilson

Description: The green heron has a green back, blue-black wings, and a greenish-black cap which forms a crest when extended. It has a chestnut neck with a white line down the front and gray underparts. Its legs are greenish-yellow.

Range: North and Central America.

Habitat: Small lowland wetlands.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Green Heron closeup
Image By SC Smith
Green Heron in flight
Image By Dick Daniels

Similar species:

  • American Bittern – The green heron has green in its plumage, whereas the American bittern is brown with white stripes.
  • Black-Crowned Night Heron – The juvenile black-crowned night heron is similar to the green heron but has a mostly yellow bill, whereas the green heron has a dark bill.
  • Least Bittern – The green heron has green in its plumage, whereas least bitterns are typically brown with white stripes. Only adult male least bitterns are greenish-black on the back and crown.

4.2. Lava Heron, Butorides sundevalli

Lava Heron
Image By Dick Daniels

Description: The lava Heron has slate-gray plumage, which helps it blend in with hardened lava. The back feathers have a silvery sheen. During the breeding season, the bill becomes black, and the legs become bright orange.

Range: Galapagos Islands.

Habitat: Mangrove swamps and intertidal environments.

Conservation Status: Unclassified. Invasive predators pose the biggest threat to this species.

Lava Heron closeup
Image By Putneymark
Lava Heron habitat
Image By Putneymark

4.3. Striated Heron (Little Heron; Green-Backed Heron), Butorides striata

Striated Heron
Image By Claudio Timm

5. Genus Cochlearius

There is only one species in this genus.

5.1. Boat-Billed Heron, Cochlearius cochlearius

Boat-Billed Heron
Image By Dick Daniels – National Aviary

Description: The Boat-billed Heron has pale gray upperparts with a black upper mantle, a black crown. It has a massive black, boat-shaped bill for which it is named. It is distinctly different in appearance from other herons.

Range: Found: Central and South America.

Habitat: Mangroves, estuaries, and lagoons.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Boat-Billed Heron closeup
Image By Patrick Coin
Boat-Billed Heron habitat
Image By Dick Daniels – Jacksonville Zoo
Boat-Billed Herons
Image By Dick Daniels – Jacksonville Zoo

6. Genus Gorsachius

Night herons are short-necked, relatively short-legged, and stout.

6.1. Japanese Night-Heron, Gorsachius goisagi

Japanese Night-Heron
Image By Ken Osaka
Japanese Night-Heron distribution
Image By Cephas

Description: The Japanese night-heron has a russet-colored head and neck and dark brown wings. It is paler below with black streaks down the center.

Range: They have a small insular range in east Asia (breeding) and Southeast Asia (winter).

Habitat: Dense upland forests near freshwater.

Conservation Status: Vulnerable. Threats include habitat loss due to deforestation and agriculture and competition with crows.

6.2. Malayan Night-Heron, Gorsachius melanolophus

Malayan Night-Heron
Image By Ainus
Malayan Night-Heron distribution
Image By Cephas

Description: The Malayan night-heron has reddish-brown plumage with streaked underparts, a white chin, and a blue or black crown. It has yellow eyes, a small black bill, and greenish legs.

Range: Southern, eastern, and southeast Asia.

Habitat: Forests and shallow freshwater habitats such as streams and marshes.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

6.3. White-Backed Night-Heron, Gorsachius leuconotus

White-Backed Night-Heron
Image By Nik Borrow
White-Backed Night-Heron distribution
Image By Cephas

Description: The white-backed night-heron has a grayish-black back, wings, and a grayish-black head with a short crest. It has a rufous-colored neck and breast and a white throat. Its belly is brownish-white. It is named for the white feathers that run down its back. It has large, reddish eyes with white eye-rings and pale lores.

Range: Sub-Saharan Africa.

Habitat: Dense forests near rivers, streams, lakes, mangroves, and marshes.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

6.4. White-Eared Night-Heron, Gorsachius magnificus

White-Eared Night-Heron
Image By Henrik Gronvold
White-Eared Night-Heron distribution
Image By Cephas

Description: The white-eared night-heron is blackish-brown above. The underparts are brown with white streaks. The sides of its neck are chestnut-colored. It has yellow lores, a black bill, and a blackish head and nape. The throat is white, and it has white stripes behind the ears for which it is named. The female is similar, but the head and neck are less distinctly marked.

Range: China and Vietnam.

Habitat: Tropical and subtropical forests, often near rivers.

Conservation Status: The small, fragmented population is endangered due to deforestation, hunting, overfishing, and water pollution.

7. Genus Nycticorax

Birds in this genus have a black crown and a whitish belly. Typical of night herons, they have shorter necks and legs compared to other herons.

7.1. Black-Crowned Night-Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

Black-Crowned Night-Heron
Image By Dick Daniels

Description: The black-crowned night-heron has a black back and crown. Its face, throat, and breast are white. The rest of its plumage is gray. It has red eyes and yellow legs.

Range: The Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.

Habitat: Wetlands, marshes, swamps, streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, lagoons, mudflats, canals, and flooded fields.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Black-Crowned Night-Heron habitat
Image By Dick Daniels
Black-Crowned Night-Heron juvenile
Juvenile (Image By Dick Daniels)

Similar species:

  • American Bittern and Green Heron – The juvenile black-crowned night-heron is similar to the American bittern and the green heron. The juvenile black-crowned night-heron has a mostly yellow bill, whereas the green heron and American bittern have dark bills.
  • Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron – The adult yellow-crowned night-heron has a yellowish crown stripe. The black-crowned night-heron does not. The juvenile black-crowned has a pointed, yellowish bill, whereas the juvenile yellow-crowned has a dark, non-pointed bill.

7.2. Nankeen Night-Heron (Rufous Night-Heron), Nycticorax caledonicus

Nankeen Night-Heron
Image By Michael Spencer – Jurong Bird Park
Nankeen Night-Heron distribution
Image By Cephas

Description: The nankeen night-heron has rufous-colored upperparts, a black cap, pale-buff breast, and cream white belly. White plumes emerge from the crown down the nape during the breeding season.

Range: Australia, Indonesia.

Habitat: A wide range of habitats, often near a river or stream. They can occur in forests, meadows, grasslands, wetlands, swamps, lagoons, reefs, and beaches.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Nankeen Night-Heron habitat
Image By Geoff Whalan
Nankeen Night-Heron closeup
Image By Flagstaffhotos

7.3. Yellow-Crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron
Image By Dick Daniels

Description: It has a smooth blue-grey body with black-patterned wings. The head is black with a thick white stripe on each cheek and a pale-yellow crown. It has orange-red eyes and a black bill. During the breeding season, the yellow legs turn pinkish-red and short plumes emerge from the cap.

Range: The Americas.

Habitat: Marshes, swamps, lakesides, mangroves, coastal cliffs, and thickets near water.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Similar species:

  • American Bittern,, Green Heron – The juvenile yellow-crowned night-heron is similar to the American bittern and the green heron. The juvenile yellow-crowned heron has small white spots on its wings. Bitterns do not have white spots.
  • Black-Crowned Night-Heron – The adult yellow-crowned night-heron has a yellowish crown stripe, whereas the black-crowned night-heron does not. The juvenile black-crowned has a pointed, yellowish bill, whereas the juvenile yellow-crowned has a dark, non-pointed bill.
Yellow-Crowned Night Heron closeup
Image By Dick Daniels
Yellow-Crowned Night Heron habitat
Juvenile (Image By Dick Daniels)

8. Genus Pilherodius

There is only one species in this genus

8.1. Capped Heron, Pilherodius pileatus

Capped Heron
Image By Andreas Trepte

Description: The capped heron has a whitish body plumage, a yellowish neck, breast, and belly, and a black cap with long, downward-growing plumes. It has a distinctive blue face and bill.

Range: Central American and northern South America.

Habitat: Wetlands, swamps, and ditches in rainforests.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Capped Heron habitat
Image By Claudio Timm

9. Genus Syrigma

9.1. Whistling Heron, Syrigma sibilatrix

Whistling Heron
Image By Gustavo Duran

Description: The whistling heron has a blue-gray back and a dark crown. From the cheeks down to the breast, it is stained buff-colored. It has blue orbital skin and a pink bill with a blackish tip.

Range: South America.

Habitat: Grasslands, savanna, marshes, wooded open areas, and pasturelands. They can occur in drier habitats than other herons and are often found around human-altered landscapes.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Whistling Heron in flight
Image By Gustavo Duran
Whistling Heron habitat
Image By Christiano Crolle

9.2. White-Crested Bittern (White-Crested Tiger-Heron), Tigriornis leucolopha

White-Crested Bittern
Image By Naturalis Biodiversity Centre
White-Crested Bittern distribution
Image By Cephas

Description: The white-crested bittern has a black and brown, cryptically colored plumage and a white crest.

Range: From the Central African Republic through parts of the West African rainforest.

Habitat: Marshes, swamps, mangroves, rivers, and streams in tropical rainforest and gallery forest.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

White-Crested Bittern closeup
Image By Francesco Veronesi
White-Crested Bittern habitat
Image By Francesco Veronesi

10. Genus Tigrisoma

These Herons are found in Central and South America.

10.1. Bare-Throated Tiger Heron, Tigrisoma mexicanum

Bare-Throated Tiger Heron
Image By Patrick Gijsbers

Description: The bare-throated tiger-heron has blackish upperparts with buff barring and a black crown. The sides of the head are gray, and it has a black and white stripe down the neck. The underparts are dull cinnamon. It is similar to the fascinated tiger-heron, but the bare-throated tiger-heron has barring over more of its body. The juveniles are very similar.

Range: Central and South America.

Habitat: Open areas alongside large water bodies such as lakes and rivers.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Bare-Throated Tiger Heron closeup
Image By Dominic Sherony
Bare-Throated Tiger Heron habitat
Image By Becky Matsubara

10.2. Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Tigrisoma fasciatum

Fasciated Tiger-Heron
Image By Gina

Description: The fasciated tiger-heron has dark plumage with light barring. It is similar to the bare-throated tiger-heron, but the latter has barring, over more of its body than the fasciated tiger-heron. The juveniles are very similar.

Range: Mexico, Central America, and South America.

Habitat: Along fast-flowing rivers and streams at higher elevations often standing among rocks.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

10.3. Rufescent Tiger Heron, Tigrisoma lineatum

Rufescent Tiger Heron
Image By Christiano Crolle

Description: The rufescent tiger-heron has rufous upperparts, including the head and neck. It has yellow eyes and a black bill with yellow at the base.

Range: Central and South America.

Habitat: Swamps and along slow-moving streams.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Rufescent Tiger Heron habitat
Image By Claudio Timm
Rufescent Tiger Heron closeup
Image By Claudio Timm

Bitterns

Bitterns are herons of the Botaurinae subfamily. They have a stocky build with shorter necks than other herons. Moreover, they have ten retrices (tail feathers), unlike other Ardeidae members that have twelve. Bitterns are shy and elusive birds that are well-camouflaged with their environments making them difficult to spot. They feed on fish, amphibians, reptiles, and insects

11. Genus Zebrilus

There is only one species in this genus.

11.1. Zigzag Heron, Zebrilus undulatus

Zigzag Heron
Image By Joseph Smit

Description: The zigzag heron is brownish-gray with zigzag barring for which it is named. It is lighter on underparts. It is, in fact, a bittern, confirmed by DNA evidence. And like other bitterns, it has 12 retrices (flight feathers on the tail).

Range: Amazon Basin of South America.

Habitat: Densely vegetated swamps, riverbanks, and wetlands in tropical and subtropical forests.

Conservation Status: Near-threatened.

Zigzag Heron closeup
Image By Carol Foil
Zigzag Heron habitat
Image By Carol Foil

12. Genus Zonerodius

12.1. Forest Bittern, Zonerodius heliosylus

Description: A brown heron with buff stripes, a black crown, a whitish-buff chin, and a white belly.

Range: Endemic to New Guinea.

Habitat: Streams and ponds in forests.

Conservation Status: This insular species is near-threatened due to its declining localized habitat.

Forest Bittern
Image By Abel Malo
Forest Bittern distribution
Image By Cephas

13. Genus Botaurus

The four Botaurus bitterns are all large chunky, heavily streaked brown birds that breed in large reedbeds. Almost uniquely for predatory birds, the female rears the young alone. They are secretive and well-camouflaged, and despite their size, they can be difficult to observe except for occasional flight views.

13.1. American Bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus

American Bittern
Image By Alan D. Wilson

Description: The American bittern has mainly brown plumage streaked with darker brown. It has a white throat and breast.

Range: North and Central America.

Habitat: Aquatic environments including marshes, bogs, ponds, and densely vegetated verges of shallow lakes. It occasionally occurs in meadows, pastures, and other open environments.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

13.2. Australasian Bittern, Botaurus poiciloptilus

Australasian Bittern
Image By John Gerrard Keulemans

Description: The Australasian bittern has mottled, dark brown upperparts and buff underparts with dark streaks.

Range: Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, and New Caledonia.

Habitat: Densely vegetated wetlands.

Conservation Status: Endangered due to wetland degradation.

Australasian Bittern in flight
Image By Wayne Butterworth

13.3. Eurasian Bittern (Great Bittern), Botaurus stellaris

Eurasian Bittern
Image by Steve Chilton

Description: The Eurasian bittern has a biff plumage streaked with dark brown. It is paler below.

Range: Europe and Asia. Northern and central Africa are part of the winter range of migratory populations.

Habitat: Reed beds, swamps, marshes, lakes, lagoons, slow-flowing rivers, ponds, rice fields, and cultivated areas.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Eurasian Bittern closeup
Image By Stewart Black
Eurasian Bittern habitat
Image By Jan Svetlik
Eurasian Bittern in flight
Image By Biopauker

13.4. Pinnated Bittern (South American Bittern), Botaurus pinnatus

Pinnated Bittern
Image By Claudio Timm
Pinnated Bittern habitat
Image By Claudio Timm
Pinnated Bittern distribution
Image By Cephas

Description: The pinnated bittern has mainly brown upperparts, cryptically patterned with streaks and barring. Its underparts are cream-white with brown streaks. It has yellowish eyes and greenish-yellow legs.

Range: Distributed sporadically across Central and South America.

Habitat: Freshwater habitats, including reed beds, lakeshores, flooded grassy fields, and marshes.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

14. Genus Ixobrychus

The Ixobrychus bitterns are small birds. They breed in large reed beds and can often be difficult to observe except for occasional flight views due to their secretive behavior. Like other bitterns, they eat fish, frogs, and similar aquatic life.

14.1. Black Bittern, Ixobrychus flavicollis

Black Bittern
Image By Greg Miles

Description: The black bittern has black upperparts and brown underparts with white streaks.

The sides of its neck are yellowish-white. It is the largest member of the genus.

Range: Asia and Australasia.

Habitat: Scrubby or wooded habitats near mangroves, streams, wetlands, and other water bodies.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

14.2. Black-Backed Bittern (Australian Little Bittern), Ixobrychus dubius

Black-Backed Bittern
Image By Black-Backed Bittern

Description: The male black-backed bittern has mainly black upperparts. It has a narrow black cap. The rest of its plumage ranges from buff to chestnut-colored. The female is duller brown with streaks on the back and crown.

Range: Australia, New Guinea, and New Caledonia.

Habitat: Densely vegetated freshwater wetlands, mangroves swamps, salt marshes, and lagoons.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

14.3. Cinnamon Bittern, Ixobrychus cinnamomeus

Cinnamon Bittern
Image By Francesco Veronesi

Description: The male cinnamon bittern has uniform cinnamon-colored upperparts and buff underparts. The female is similar, but the back and crown are brown. The juvenile resembles the female but has heavily streaked brown underparts.

Range: Subtropical Asia and Indonesia.

Habitat: Flooded meadows, rice fields, and other open waterlogged grassy areas.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Cinnamon Bittern in flight
Image By Matt Francey
Cinnamon Bittern closeup
Image By Gopi Sundar

14.4. Bittern, Dwarf, Ixobrychus sturmii

Dwarf Bittern
Image By Ian White

Description: Slate-gray upperparts, a pale throat and upper breast with dark streaks, and a tawny belly. It has blue to yellow-green lores and reddish-brown eyes. Its legs are greenish-yellow. The female is paler with a more rufous tinge on the belly and yellow eyes.

Range: Africa.

Habitat: Densely vegetated wetlands, ponds, swamps, and mangroves.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

The Dwarf Bittern is similar to the striated heron, but it has uniformly colored upperparts, whereas the striated heron has some barring.

14.5. Least Bittern, Ixobrychus exilis

Least Bittern
Image By Mark Vance

Description: The male least bittern has a glossy, greenish-black back, white underparts with light brown streaks, a brown face, and yellow eyes. The female is similar with a glossy, brown back and crown.

Range: The Americas.

Habitat: Freshwater, brackish, or saltwater marshes and wetlands.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Similar to:

  • American Bitter – The American bittern is much larger than the least bittern. The least bittern has a dark cap. The American bittern does not.
  • Black-Crowned Night-Heron (juvenile) – The juvenile black-crowned heron has a mostly yellow bill, whereas the American bittern has a dark bill.
  • Green Heron – The green heron has green in its plumage. Least bitterns are brown with white stripes. Only adult males have greenish-black on the back and the crown.
Least Bittern closeup
Image By Bill Bouton
Least Bittern habitat
Image By Mike Baird

14.6. Little Bittern, Ixobrychus minutus

Little Bittern
Image By Mike Sway

Description: The little bittern has a short neck, a longish bill, and buff underparts. The male has a black back and crown. The female has a browner back and a buff-brown wing patch.

Range: Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australasia.

Habitat: Marshes and wetlands with reed beds.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Little Bittern closeup
Image By Marek Szczepanek
Little Bittern flight
Image By Christiano Crolle

14.7. Schrenck’s Bittern, Ixobrychus eurhythmus

Schrenck’s Bittern
Female (Image By Naturelly)
Schrenck’s Bittern closeup
Male(Image By Opencage)

Description: The male has uniform chestnut-colored upperparts, buff underparts. The female has white speckles on the upperparts.

Range: Asia and South East Asia.

Habitat: Reed beds, marshes, rice fields, and ponds.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

14.8. Stripe-Backed Bittern, Ixobrychus involucris

Stripe-Backed Bittern
Image By Remco Douma

Description: The stripe-backed bittern has brown upperparts with brown and white stripes and lighter brown underparts with white stripes.

Range: South America.

Habitat: Reed beds and sedge in wetlands, ponds, and lakeside edges.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

14.9. Yellow Bittern, Ixobrychus sinensis

Yellow Bittern
Juvenile (Image By Melvin Yap)

Description: The male yellow bittern has dull yellow upperparts, a chestnut head and neck, and buff underparts. The female’s crown, neck, and breast are streaked with brown. The juvenile has heavily streaked underparts.

Range: From the Indian subcontinent east to Japan and Indonesia.

Habitat: Marshy well-vegetated waters.

Conservation Status: Least concern.

Yellow Bittern habitat
Image By Tom Tarrant
Yellow Bittern closeup
Image By Steven T

Conclusion

Herons play a vital ecological role in aquatic ecosystems. Most herons are dependent on shallow waters and are directly impacted by wetland degradation. Historically, many species were intensively hunted for their plumes – particularly among the egrets. Today, the main threat to herons is habitat destruction. Insular species are particularly vulnerable as they rely on dwindling habitats in small, localized regions.

Specialist groups such as Heron Conservation are working to promote the conservation of herons and their habitats worldwide. Smaller conservation bodies work directly with local authorities to implement protection measures regionally.