Herons and Egrets — Birds of a Feather

When you spot a lovely, long-legged bird, wading thru shallow water, with elegant plumage, munching on an insect or small fish, do you know whether it is an egret, a heron, or maybe even a crane?  Inquiring minds want to know!   It is all about shape (beaks, wings, body), color (feathers, legs, head), size, song, flight patterns, habitat, and feeding habits

Great Blue Heron. (Courtesy of Sue Kersey)
Great Blue Heron.
(Courtesy of Sue Kersey)

Well, for these birds, it is easier than you think.  Actually, an egret is just a type of heron.   Herons and egrets, such as the Great Blue Heron above, hold their necks in an “S” shape, and pull in their necks completely while in flight. (color and flight)   They are typically found in and around water, wetlands and marsh.  (habitat) They spear or snap up their meals with their long sharp beaks. (feeding habits)  Herons and Egrets won’t win any singing contests with their croak-like call. (song)   Cranes, known for their distinctive trumpeting call, have shorter necks which they hold straight, whether walking or in flight.

Check out the photo below.  It could be a juvenile great blue heron which has a white-feather phase during which it could be mistaken for a great egret.  However, both it’s size and legs give it away.  The great egret is larger than a juvenile heron would be and has black legs.  The legs of the blue heron are much lighter in color (tan to grey).  (size and color)   Also, notice how the neck is completely curled in, like a squished S, so we know it’s not a crane. (shape)  Very fond of crabs and small fish, it waits patiently and quietly for unsuspecting prey to swim by then uses it’s sharp beak to neatly spear supper.  (feeding habits)  The bright green highlight around the eyes signifies that the photo below was taken during mating season.  So, shape and color help us identify this bird as a great egret.  The great egret is the official symbol for the National Audubon Society.

Great White Egret (Courtesy of Jim Baines)
Great Egret
(Courtesy of Jim Baines)

Here another Great Egret proves that patience pays off and lunch is served.  The crab will be swallowed whole. (feeding habits)

Egret with crab. (Courtesy of Jim Baines)
Great Egret with Crab.
(Courtesy of Jim Baines)

Originally from Africa, the interesting bird below is showing off its golden mating plumage.   The rest of the year, these compact herons are white with yellow bill and legs.  (color, shape) They can often be seen perched on the backs of cattle, feeding on insects they disturb. (habitat)  Similar to cleaner fish and shrimp, these egrets have a mutually beneficial relationship with grazing livestock.  They help the cattle by picking off and eating ticks and flies, as they ride along on their backs.   At airports near salt marshes, these small herons patiently wait at the edge of runways for passing planes to blow insects out of the grass.  Unlike other egrets, this species rarely eat fish, but has been known to feast on an occasional frog or toad.  (feeding habits)  These cattle egrets forage mainly alongside livestock in open fields and pastures, they breed near water with other herons.

Cattle egret (Courtesy of Jim Baines)
Cattle egret
(Courtesy of Jim Baines)

Behavior and green color help us identify the Green Heron below.  Like other herons and egrets, it hangs out in and around water.  (habitat) It is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species.  It creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, earthworms, twigs, feathers, and other objects, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.  (feeding habits) Here, the Green Heron was able to snatches a snack from mid-air, in this case a Blue Skimmer Dragonfly!  Given what we know about dragonflies, this shot proves that the Green Heron is a very talented and versatile feeder!

Green heron with tasty catch. (Courtesy of Jim Baines)
Green Heron with tasty catch.
(Courtesy of Jim Baines)

Next time you see one of our feathered friends, see if you can use these  techniques to help you figure out which bird is which.

In addition to a variety of web sites, there are some very good apps for both iPhone and Android smart phones that can help you identify birds while you are in the field:

Aududon Society
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
What Bird


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