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Regularly Occurring Night-Herons of the United States

Juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron

There are two species of Night-Herons in the United States, the Black-crowned Night-Heron and the Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron. Both species are most often found near water.

The immatures of both species, along with the White-faced and Glossy Ibis, provide the most difficult identification challenges.

Check out the page dedicated to the juveniles of both species.


Who Are Night Herons?

Night Herons are in the same family as the big Great Blue Heron, and the elegant Snowy Egret. However, since they look and act a bit different from other herons, we refer to these special birds as night herons. In North America, we have two species of night heron; the Black-crowned and the Yellow-crowned.

True to their name, these wading birds are nocturnal but not as much as most owls and nightjars. For example, I go birding at reservoirs or other wetlands in the day and I usually see both night heron species. However, they are usually roosting, waiting for the day to end.

Sure enough, at dusk, I also see those same night herons become more active. Just before it gets dark, small groups often take flight and move to their feeding grounds. Other herons can also feed at night but not nearly as much as night herons.

To help with nocturnal feeding, night herons have big eyes. Unlike other heron species, they are also chunkier, have thick necks, and shorter, stouter beaks. However, in common with other members of the heron family, night herons also feed at the edge of wetlands and catch a lot of the same prey.


Black-crowned Night-Heron

Nycticorax nycticorax

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Photograph © Sam Crowe

The Black-crowned Night Heron is a chunky, medium-sized, gray and black heron with medium-length yellow legs. It has a fairly short but sharp black beak, big red eyes, and some white on its face. Male and female birds do not have any noticeable differences.

The field marks I notice the most are its jet-black cap and black patch on its back. In breeding plumage, this heron species also has a couple of long white plumes on its head. In flight, they tuck their neck in and look like hawk or crow-sized, stocky, pale gray birds that fly with deep, steady wing beats.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Herons look very different from adults. They have gray-brown streaks, lighter underpants, white spotting on their wings, and yellowish on the base of their beaks. On average, this heron species is 25 inches long, has a 44 inch wingspan, and weighs two pounds.

During the day, Black-crowned Night Herons usually rest and roost in riverside trees and other vegetation next to wetlands. At dusk, they fly to feeding grounds where they catch crawfish, small fish, frogs, and other small animals.

These herons nest in wetlands in small colonies and we can see them in various wetland habitats in southern Canada and most of the lower 48 states.


Black-crowned Night-Heron

Photograph © Sam Crowe


Black-crowned Night-Heron

The red eye is distinctive but not always easy to see. Photograph © Sam Crowe


Black-crowned Night-Heron

Note the feet barely extend beyond the end of the tail. The legs are longer in Yellow-crowned, a useful ID tool for immature Night-Herons. Photograph © Greg Lavaty


Juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron

Note heavy spotting on wings and back of this juvenile Black-crowned Night -Heron. Bill is black and yellow.


Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Nyctanassa violacea


Adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.  Black and white face pattern distinctive. Photograph © Sam Crowe

The Yellow-crowned Night Heron is a chunky, medium-sized heron with grayish body and gray wings, and medium-length, yellow-green legs. It also has a thick black beak and large reddish eyes.

However, the most obvious field mark I notice on Yellow-crowned Night Herons is their Black and white head. They have a pale buff crown with a couple of slender plumes, and a white patch on their face. This heron also has dark streaks on its back and wings.

In flight, Yellow-crowned Night Herons tuck their longish neck in and look like a dark gray, crow-sized bird that has deep, steady wing beats.


Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Herons have a dark bill and less spotting on the sides than juvenile Black-crowned. Photograph © Greg Lavaty

The juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron is dark gray-brown with fine streaks, and has some small spots on its wings. This heron species is 24 inches long, has a 42 inch wingspan, and weighs 1.5 pounds.

In the day, Yellow-crowned Night Herons can do some foraging. However, they usually roost in shaded spots next to wetlands and become active at night. They stalk coastal marshes and other wetlands for crabs and other small animals.

Related: American Bitterns

The Yellow-crowned Night Heron nests in small colonies in and near wetlands. They live on most of the eastern coast of the USA and in eastern wetlands north to Minnesota.

Range more limited than the Black-crowned, primarily eastern half of the country.



A rather worn Yellow-crowned. Compare the size and shape of the bill with the longer, more pointed bill of the Black-crowned.  Photograph © Sam Crowe



Note feet extend well beyound the tail. Photograph © Greg Lavaty



Photograph © Greg Lavaty


Facts of Night-Herons

  • Night herons are not active only on the night, but also during the day.
  • They feed mainly on crustaceans, insects, small fish and other small animals found in or near water
  • In some cultures, night herons are considered to be a symbol of good luck or prosperity.



What is the difference between a heron and a night heron?

The difference between a heron and a night heron is their shape and behavior. Most herons have long legs and necks while night herons have shorter legs, thick necks, and are more active at night.

What is the difference between yellow and black night-herons?

The difference between yellow and black night-herons is seen on their heads, beaks, and backs. The Yellow-crowned Night Heron has pale markings on its head while the Black-crowned has a black cap. The Black-crowned Night Heron also has a sharper beak while the Yellow-crowned Night Heron’s bill is thicker.

Is the night heron nocturnal?

Yes, the night heron is nocturnal. We can also see them during the day but they are most active at night.

What are the predators of the night heron?

Predators of the night heron include the Great Horned Owl, Coyotes, foxes, Alligators, and the occasional Bald Eagle.

How tall are night herons?

Night herons are around a foot and a half to two feet tall.

What do night herons eat?

Night herons have a diverse diet, consisting of crayfish, snakes, frogs, clams, small crabs, small rodents, leeches, and insects. During the breeding season, they even eat bird eggs of other species.

Where do night herons live?

Night herons live near water, usually near marshes, rivers, ponds, and canals. They usually nest in thickets. In the United States, Black-crowned Night Herons breed in most states, but Yellow-crowned Night Herons live in eastern states.

Both species have some permanent residents in the southern United States, but most birds migrate south to Central America.


Read more: Comparisons of juvenile Black-crowned and Yellow-Crowned Night-Herons

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

Let others know your thoughts or ask an expert

Mary Brady

Wednesday 5th of July 2023

This was helpful in identifying a Black Capped Night Heron which flew down on my lawn in daytime. It looks like the picture shown of a more slender one. I have also seen in the past, what I think is a stocky Night Heron on the far side of a pond very near my property. I am wondering if they get stockier as they age or if they vary from season to season. Or individual to individual. Gloucester, MA

Patrick O'Donnell

Monday 10th of July 2023

@Mary Brady- Thanks for sharing, how lucky to have a Black-crowned Night-Heron on your lawn! We are glad to hear we could be of help. Although they don't really get stockier with age, as they get older, night-herons may have fluffier plumage. These birds can also look leaner or stockier depending on if they tuck their necks in or stretch them out.

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