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Scientific name: Nyctanassa violacea
Length: 24 in. Wing span: 43 in.
Yellow-crowned Night-Herons have expanded their breeding range to the north, and are also known to make post-breeding dispersals to the north or west. Birds in northern portions of the breeding range are migratory. While Yellow-crowned Night-Herons nest fairly close together, they prefer a bit more space when foraging.
Yellow-crowned Night-Herons begin breeding at age two, and frequently return to the same nest location year after year, sometimes for over a decade. Both crows and mammals have been identified as major sources of nest predation.
(Adult and juvenile Yellow-cronwed Night-Herons. Photographs © Greg Lavaty)
Description of the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Photograph © Greg Lavaty
The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron has bluish-gray plumage, a black face with white cheeks, a whitish crown, and yellow legs.
Legs may turn pink in the breeding season.
White head plumes.
Visit the Bent Life History page for extensive additional information.
Seasonal change in appearance
Loses head plumes and legs become yellow in non-breeding season.
Juveniles have brownish plumage and faces with white markings.
Juvenile. Photograph © Greg Lavaty
Cypress Swamps, streams, and suburban trees.
Varied, including crustaceans, frogs, and fish.
Forages by walking or by waiting patiently for prey.
Breeds across much of the southeastern U.S. and winters along the Gulf Coast of the U.S. and in Mexico. The U.S. population appears to be increasing.
Yellow-crowned Night-Herons prefer dark, shady areas for nesting.
There are six subspecies of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, though just one occurs in the U.S.
The call resembles a “woc” sound.
- Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are unmistakable as adults.
Young Black-crowned Night-Herons have more white spotting on the brown plumage and shorter legs. In flight, feet barely extend beyond the tail.
The nest is a platform of sticks placed in a tree.
Eggs: 4 to 5
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 21-25 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) in 42 days after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
NYCTANASSA VIOLACEA (Linnaeus)
This handsome and conspicuously marked heron has always been associated in my mind with the fresh-water swamps and bayous of our tropical and semitropical regions, where the deadly mocassin lurks under leafy shadows and the lazy alligator slumbers on muddy banks. We found it in Florida in the extensive marshes of the upper St. Johns, living with the Louisana and little blue herons on the willow islands and on the borders of the big cypress swamps; there were at least one or two pairs of these herons in nearly every rookery we visited. In Texas we found the yellow-crowned night heron common in the swamp and bayou forests along the banks of the Guadalupe River, in Victoria County. Its favorite haunts seemed to be in the bayous and stagnant backwaters, where the atately cypress grows, along with a heavy mixed forest of swamp tupelo, sweet and black gums, water oak, magnolia, and various willows. I understand that it lives under similar conditions in Louisiana and other Southern States.
But it has been found living under strikingly different conditions in other places. Mr. B. S. Bowdish (1902) “found it common on Mona,” an island near Porto Rico, which seemed rather remarkable, as it is a dry, hot rock, with no sign of lagoon or swamp.” Col. A. J. Grayson (1871) found it on Socorro Island, one of the Revillagigedo Islands, of which he writes:
Upon this remote island, where there is a scarcity of fresh water, I was surprised to find this well-known species. Here its natural haunts are entirely wanting. Here there are no lagoons or mangrove swamps to skulk in during the day; and the croaking of frogs, its favorite prey, is not heard. All is dry and destitute of such localities suited to the nature of fresh-water birds. I saw solitary ones in the daytime perched upon the rocks in the interior of the island, and on one or two occasions were started from the dry grass, where they were concealed. Hardly a night passed that I did not hear the well-known quak of this heron as they came to our spring to drink. From the appearance of the male bird on examination and the presence of the young one shot they doubtless breed here to some extent.
E. W. Gifford (1913) found it along the shores of many of the Galapagos Islands, while on two of them it was seen in the interior as well. It frequented rocky and cliff-bound coasts, as well as those fringed with mangroves. On Tower Island, two or three were noted a quarter of a mile inland among the rocks and bushes. On the east side of Cowley Mountain, Albemarle Island, the tracks of these birds were noted in the dust of the donkey trails at an altitude of about 2,400 feet, and an immature bird was seen.
Nesting: My first experience with the nesting habits of the yellowcrowned night heron was in the marshes of the upper St. Johns, in Florida, on April 21, 1902. We saw one or two pairs of this species in nearly all of the rookeries of small herons, found on the little willow-covered islands scattered over the marsh, but found only two nests. The first nest was on the outer edge of one of these islands in a leaning willow, about 4 feet above the water; it was made of large sticks and lined with smaller twigs; it measured 20 by 16 inches and contained five eggs which were on the point of hatching. The other nest was similarly made and was 8 feet above the ground in a clump of willows on dry land; it was within a few yards of an occupied Ward heron’s nest; it contained two eggs and two young birds. The old birds were quite tame in both cases and remained near the~ nests watching us.
We found no nests in Texas, but in Florida, in 1925, we found two colonies. The first was a small mixed colony of yellow-crowned and black-crowned night herons, little blue and Louisiana herons and a few Ward herons in a small willow swamp on the prairie in Charlotte County, found on March 5. The Ward herons had small young, but the other species were building nests and had not laid at that date. The water was waist deep or more, but the trees were all small and none of the nests were over 9 or 10 feet above the water in the slender willows.
The other colony, on Bird Key, in Boca Ceiga Bay, Pinellas County, was much larger, but it was very difficult to determine its limits, as the foliage was very dense and the birds were very shy; they sneaked off their nests when they heard us coming and kept out of sight; all we saw were fleeting glimpses of departing birds, or an occasional individual flying over. The nests were grouped in a grove of the largest black-mangroves, where there were no other species nesting except a few Louisiana herons; they were placed at moderate heights, 15 to 20 feet, in these trees, on the larger limbs and mostly under the shade of the upper branches. When I first visited the colony, on March 11, these herons were building their nests, but in April they all had eggs. The nests could usually be distinguished from those of the smaller herons; they were larger, thicker, and more substantially built of heavier sticks; but occasionally an especially well made nest of a Louisiana heron could be recognized only by the smaller eggs.
Audubon (1840) says:
This species places its nest either high or low, according to the nature of the place selected for it, and the abundance of food in the neighborhood. In the interior of swampy woods, in lower Louisiana, I have found the nests placed on the tops of the loftiest cypresses, and on low bushes, but seldom so close together as those of many other herons. On the Florida Keys, where I have examined more of these tenements than in any other part, I found them either on the tops of mangroves, which thcre seldom attain a greater height than 25 feet, or on their lowest branches, and not more than 2 or 3 feet from the water. In the Carolinas, they usually resort to swamps, nestling on the bushes along their margins. The nest is similar to that of other herons, being formed of dry sticks loosely put together, and a few weeds, with at times a scanty lining of fibrous roots.
C. J. Maynard (1896) says that, in the Bahamas, “the nests are generally placed low, in some instances not over a foot from the ground. They are usually huge stick-built structures, well hollowed, and remind one strongly of the nests of hawks, and they are often lined with leaves.” Arthur T. Wayne (1906) found a nest that was built in a short-leaf pine, 40 feet from the ground, on the high land and half a mile from water, in South Carolina. John G. Wells (1886) says that, in the Lesser Antilles, “they sometimes build in the mangroves, but generally resort to the rocky islets during the nesting period, in April and May. There they build in the prickly-pear bushes a large platform of dry sticks.”
Eggs: Thc yellow-crowned night heron usually lays three or four eggs, rarely five. Those that I have seen are ovate in shape and the shell is smooth but not glossy. The color is pale bluish green, varying from “pale glaucous green” to “pale olivine.” The measurements of 40 eggs average 51.3 by 36.9 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 57 by 36.8, 50.5 by 39.5, 46 by 35 millimeters. Plumage8: I have no specunens of the downy young of the yellowcrowned night heron, nor any partially fledged young; and I can not find any descriptions of them in print. In the full juvenal plumage in August, the crown and occiput are black, with whitish shaft streaks, and a few long whitish, hairlike plumes remain on the tips of some feathers; the sides of the head are streaked with “fuscous” and whitish; the mantle is “bister,” or “warm sepia,” with terminal, huffy arrowheads on the feathers of the back and wing-coverts; the chin and throat are white; the neck and under parts are pale buff and white, broadly striped with “olive brown,” “hair brown” and “fus: cous”; the remiges and rectrices are “dark grayish brown,” or “fuscous,” very narrowly tipped with white when fresh; the white tips soon wear away.
This juvenal plumage is worn through the first fail and winter, until February or March, when a complete first prenuptial molt begins; by the time that this molt is finished, in May, the entire plumage has been changed, except perhaps a few old, juvenal wingcoverts, showing a decided advance towards maturity; the head pattern suggests that of tl~ adult, but the crown is brownish, black-tipped, and white basally on the forehead, with short whitish plumes; the auriculars are grayish, but mottled; the black areas in the head are streaked with white and the chin and throat are white; the neck is drab; the new plumage of the mantle is a mixture of brown and blackish and sometimes there are a few long, plumelike feathers in the back; the under parts are striped, much as in the juvenal plumage. This is the first nuptial plumage, but it is probably not a breeding plumage.
Summer and fall specimens are so scarce in collections that I have been unable to trace what takes place during these seasons, but there is probably another complete molt, perhaps two molts, between the first nupital and the second nuptial plumages. I have, however, seen a small series of specimens, taken in March, which show various stages of a complete prenuptial molt into the second nuptial plumage, which is probably a breeding plumage. This plumage is nearly adult, but the crown is more or less brown and the chin and throat are partially black, but centrally grayish and whitish; the upper parts, particularly the wing coverts, are tinged with brown, instead of being clear gray and black; tbe under parts are tinged with brown; and the occipital plumes are nearly as in the adult.
A complete postnuptial molt, beginning in July or August, produces the fully adult plumage, with the wholly black throat, the white crown and the clear grays, blacks, and whites, without any tinges of brown. The young bird is then about 2J/~ years old. For lack of material, collected at the proper seasons, I can not trace the molts of the adults.
Food: The yellow-crowned night heron is not quite so nocturnal in its feeding habits as the black-crowned night heron; it feeds more or less during the night, but it also feeds commonly at all hours of the day, chiefly, however, in the morning and evening hours. Fish seem to constitute a comparatively small portion of its diet, which is largely made up of crabs and crawfish; this may account for its more diurnal habits. Audubon (1840) says that it is not at all delicate in the choice of its food, but swallows “snails, fish, small snakes, crabs, crays, lizards, and leeches, as well as small quadrupeds, and young birds that have fallen from their nests.” He also says that it appears to seize its food “with little concern, picking it up from the ground in the manner of a domestic fowl.”
Mr. Maynard (1896) says:
The food of the yellow-crowned night herons is mainly land crabs, which they are very expert at catching, killing and breaking to pieces. They will eat all kinds, excepting possibly the large white crab, a species which often meaaures 14 inches across the body and claws, and which weighs about 1 pound. This animal appears to be too strong and bulky for the herons to manage, hut they will kill the black crab, a crustacean which measures nearly or quite a foot across the body and claws. But a favorite crab with this heron is a smaller species, which resembles the black crab in form, which is, on account of its being a favorite with the herons, called the galden crab by the Bahamans. This crab is very abundant. Another crab, or rather group of land crabs, which I think is exempt from the attacks of the galden is the hermit crab, for they retreat within their borrowed shells, and guard the entrance with their large claws.
Mr. Bowdish (1902) found in the stomachs of birds, taken in Porto Rico, fiddler crabq, two fresh-water eels about 6 inches long and two crawfish. Mr. Wayne (1906) says that in the breeding season the food of these birds is chiefly crawfish, but that after the breeding season they “resort to the salt marshes, and feed chiefly upon fiddlers and fish.” Behavior: The appearance of the yellow-crowned night heron iii flight is midway between that of the. black-crowned and that of the other small herons, hence it is quite distinctive; it is a more slender bird and has a longer neck and longer legs than the blackcrowned; its ffight is slower and its neck is folded, after the manner of other herons, rather than contracted. The color is distinctive and the large, black bill is conspicuous. Its appearance on the grouud is also characteristic, as it walks gracefully and slowly about on its long legs, with its long neck extended and its orange-red eyes searching for its prey. I have found immature birds very tame and easily approached, but the adults are rather shy, as a rule.
Audubon (1840) writes:
This species is by no means entirely nocturnal, for I have seen it searching for food among the roots of mangroves at all hours of the day, and that as assiduously as any diurnal bird, following the margins of rivers, and seizing on both aquatic and terrestrial animals. Whilst at Galveston, I frequently saw a large flock similarly occupied. When they had satisfied their hunger, they would quietly remove to some safe distance toward the middle of an island, where, standlog in a crouching posture on the ground, they presented a very singular appearance. That they are able to see to a considerable distance on fine clear nights, I have no doubt, as I am confident that their migratory movements are usually performed at such times, having seen them, as well as several other species, come down from a considerable height in the air, after sunrise, for the purpose of resting and procuring food. When in numbers, and surprised on their perches, they usually rise almost perpendicularly for 30 or 40 yards, and then take a particular direction, leading them to some well-known place. Whenever I have started them from the nest, especially on the Florida Keys, they would sneak off on wing quite low, under cover of the mangroves, and fly in this manner until they had performed the circuit of the island, when they would alight close to me, as if to see whether I had taken their eggs or young.”
Enemies: Audubon (1840) notes thnt the yellow-crowned night heron was “watched and shot with great eagerness, by the Creoles of lower Louisiana, on account of the excellence of its flesh” but it can not now be regarded as a game bird. According to Mr. Maynard (1898) it was also much hunted as a game bird by the inhabitants of the Bahamas.
Range: Southeastern United States, Central America, and the northern half of South America.
Breeding range: North to Kansas (formerly Coffee County); Illinois (formerly the Illinois River and Mount. Carmel); Indiana (formerly Bicknell and Wheatland); Alabama (Au taugaville); and South Carolina (Washoe Reserve on the Santee River, and Charleston). East to Sout.h Carolina (Washoc Preserve, Charleston, and Frogmore); Georgia (Savannah mouth of the Altamaha River and St. Mary~); Florida (St. John’s River, Micanopy, Kissimmee, Bassenger, and the Hilisboro River); the Bahama Islands (Little Abaco, Abaco, Eleuthera, Watling, and Great Lnagua Islands); Porto Rico (Guanica Valley); the Lesser Antilles (St.. Thomas, Virgin Gorda, St. Croix, St. Bartholomew, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Santa Lucia, St. Vincent, the Grenadines, Grenada, Tobago, and Trinidad Islands); British Guiana (Georgetown); French Guiana (Cayenne); and eastern and southeastern Brazil (Cajutube Island, Bahia, Sapitiba, Cape Frio, Paranagua, and Santa Catarina). South to southeastern Brazil (Paranagua and Santa Catarina); and Peru (Santa Lucia). West to Peru (Santa Lucia and Tumbez); Ecuador (Babahoyo); the Galapago~ Islands; Panama (San Miguel Island); Costa Rica (San Jose); Nicaragua (San Juan dcl Sur); Mexico, Guerrero (IPapayo); Tepic (San Blas); Sinaloa (Mazatlan); Lower California (Magdalena Bay); Texas (Lomita, Laredo, Corpus Christi, mouth of the Colorado River, and Gurley); Oklahoma (Fort Reno an(l Copan): and Kansas (Coffee County).
In the United States most of the colonies are now located in the South Atlantic and Gulf coast regions.
Winter range: The yellow-crowned night heron appears to be resident throughout its breeding range in the islands of the Caribbean Sea, and in central and South America, remaining north at this season rarely to Florida (Upper Matecumbe Key. Tampa, and near Fort Myers): Louisiana (Vermillion Bay): Texas (Giddings); and Lower California (La Paz).
Spring migration: Early dates of arrival are Florida, Polk County. February 14, 1901, and Orange Springs, March 19, 1910; Alabama, Barachias, April 15; Georgia, Darien, April 3, 1890, and Savannah, March 12, 1905; South Carolina, Mount Pleasant, March 24, 1891; Louisiana, New Orleans, February 19, 1914; Mississippi, Rodney, March 20, 1890; Missouri, St. Louis, April 10; and Kansas, W.ellsville, March 27, 1920.
Casiud record8: The yellow-crowned night heron occurs with fair regularity both spring and fall in North Carolina and has been taken or noted at other points much farther north. These are: District of Columbia (Washington, one taken in August 1901); New Jersey (Elizabeth, August 16, 1922 and Woodbine, May 23, 1891); Pennsylvania (near Philadelphia, Ten-mile Creek, Glenolden, April 23, 1922 and Berwyn, May 14, 1916); New York (Freeport, Long Island, April, 1893, Wading River, April, 1901, near Orient about 1892 and May 4 and 7,1905); Rhode Island (Newport, August, 1892 and June 15, 1778, and Tiverton, April 23, 1886); Massachusetts (Provincetown, March 8,1891, Lynn, October, 1862, and Somerville, July 30, 1878); Maine (Back Cove, April 13, 1901, and Portland, April 11, 1906); Nova Scotia (Cape Sable Island, April 13, 1904, and one previously at the same place); Ontario (near Toronto, August 15, 1898); Iowa (Council Bluffs, May 2,1843, Lee County, June 2,1883, Omaha [Iowa side], May 1,1892, Florence Lake, August 23, 1903, and Jackson County, September 15, 1892); Nebraska (Beatrice, July 19, 1901); and Colorado (Salida, May 1,1908 and Byers, May 3,1914).
Egg dates: Florida: 25 records, March 25 to May 15; 13 records April 4 to 26. Texas: 8 records, April 13 to May 23.