The Black-Crowned Night Heron is a fairly common species of rivers, lakes, and other wetland habitats in many parts of southern Canada and much of the USA.
This nocturnal heron species also lives in many other parts of the world and uses wetland habitats from Mexico south to southern Patagonia, scattered locations in Europe and central Asia, large parts of Africa, and large areas in eastern and southern Asia.
The Black-Crowned Night Heron feeds on a wide variety of small fish and crustaceans and usually forages at night.
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The Black-Crowned Night Heron is a stocky, stout heron with a rather hefty, sharp black bill, long rounded wings, and a short, squared tail.
A bit larger than a crow, adults are mostly pale gray with a jet-black cap, back, and bill. They have a bit of white between the bill and the black cap that extends just above large, reddish eyes, white on the cheeks and throat, and fairly long, pale yellowish legs.
During the breeding season, the cap and back show a dark green gloss. These birds have two to three long, fine white plumes that extend from the top of the head down to the upper back (longer in males), black lores (the part of the bird between the eye and the beak), and pinkish legs.
Both sexes look the same although males are slightly larger than females. Juveniles have the same stocky shape as the adults but look very different. They have much yellow in the bill, yellowish eyes, have heavy brown streaking on the head and underparts, and white spots on a brown back and wings.
In flight, this heron looks like a medium to large, hefty, pale gray bird with black cap and back. They often fly between roosting and feeding sites in the evening and early morning and when doing so, give a loud and characteristic Squawk! call.
The Black-Crowned Night Heron eats fish, crustaceans, and a wide variety of other food items found in wetland habitats.
This opportunistic heron feeds on just about anything it can catch including worms, crayfish, small clams, many types of fish, occasional snakes and small turtles, and many insects.
In general, what they eat depends more on what is available than what they might prefer. In some places, small rodents make up more of their diet, in other areas, fish and clams are what they eat the most, and in sites near nesting colonies of ibis and other waterbirds, the Black-Crowned Night Heron can be an important predator of eggs and young birds.
At sites near landfills and garbage dumps, it has also been seen feeding on refuse and carrion.
This heron can feed during the day, but it mostly forages at night. It usually flies from day roosts to preferred feeding sites and catches food by patiently standing in shallow water at the edge of a marsh, river, or lake, and then quickly snatching the animal with its bill.
It can also hunt from rocks, docks, or other structures at the edge of the water. Sometimes, this heron carefully stalks through grassy marshes, but it prefers to stand and wait for unwary prey to venture within reach of its strike.
Nesting and Eggs
The male Black-Crowned Night Heron picks the nesting site and may use an old nest or a new spot. He uses twigs and sticks to build a fairly large, platform-shaped nest in a live tree, bush, or, occasionally, on a cliff on an island or within a swamp or other wetland.
During nest construction, he offers sticks and twigs to the female who then uses them to help build the nest. Grasses and other vegetation can also be used but, for the most part, the nest of the Black-Crowned Night Heron resembles an unkempt platform of sticks. Nests usually have a diameter of 11 to 17 inches and a height of 8 to 11 inches.
This nocturnal heron lays a clutch of three to five, dull greenish-blue eggs incubated by both parents until they hatch after 23 to 28 days.
Nestlings grasp the bill of either parent and are fed regurgitated bits of food. As the nestlings grow, the parent birds also leave bits of fish and other food items in the nest. Two weeks after hatching, young start to leave the nest and after three weeks, are often found perched nearby. Some young birds are fed up to three months after hatching.
Black-Crowned Night Herons use a variety of wetland habitats from parts of central and southern Canada to much of the southern USA. They also occur in the Caribbean, in much of central and South America, and on every other continent except for Australia and Antarctica.
Birds from northern, temperate parts of their range fly to warmer regions for the winter where they use similar wetland habitats.
This species can occur on the edges of rivers and lakes, and is especially common in freshwater and saltwater marshes. It can also feed on mud flats, usually at night.
This bird species is considered to be common and is not endangered. Although the use of DDT caused declines in some places during the latter half of the 20th century, and it is still susceptible to pollution and disturbance at nest colonies, populations are currently stable in most parts of their range, including Canada and the USA.
- Black-crowned Night Herons feed during the night to avoid competition with other heron species that use the same habitat and eat the same types of food during the day.
- This species can attract fish and other prey by quickly opening and closing its bill in the water. It is believed that by disturbing the water in this way, prey may come closer to see if an insect had fallen into the water. Using their bill like this might also make it easier to see into the water.
- It can attract fish by placing pieces of bread or even dragonflies on the surface of the water.
- This bird species has become accustomed to living near people in many areas. In Washington D.C., a colony has nested in the National Zoo for more than a hundred years, and, in Oakland, California, this resilient heron is the city’s official bird species.
The Black-Crowned Night Heron has a distinctive appearance but there are at least three other, commonly encountered species in North America that look a bit like it.
Black-Crowned Night Herons and Yellow-Crowned Night Herons share similar nocturnal habits, but Yellow-Crowned Night Herons have slightly longer necks, longer legs, and stouter bills.
Adults are also darker gray, have a pale crown and black throat, and have dark streaking on the upperparts instead of a black patch on the back. Juveniles can be hard to tell apart but the Yellow-Crowned has a stouter, darker bill and finer streaking and spotting than the Black-Crowned.
The Green Heron is another stocky heron species but is smaller, has a thinner bill and both adults and juveniles have chestnut coloration on the neck.
The American Bittern can look like a juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron but is larger, has a longer neck, a pale line above the eye, lacks pale spotting, and has thicker, dark brown streaks.
Frequently Asked Questions
How rare is a Black-Crowned Night Heron?
The Black-Crowned Night Heron is not rare. It is a common bird in many areas and is thought to have a global population of at least three million.
Why are they called night herons?
Black-Crowned Night Herons are mostly active during the night.
Where can I see Black-Crowned Night Herons?
Freshwater marshes, coastal marshes, swamps, and other wetlands are all good places to see a Black-Crowned Night Heron.
Are night herons endangered?
No, the Black-Crowned Night Heron is a fairly common species with stable populations in most parts of its range.