Herons of the Night
Living along the upper Texas coast, most of us see herons and egrets daily. They live and feed along our beaches, bayous, ponds, and even city drainage canals. We see them out in agricultural fields, and grassy areas. At times even sitting high up in trees, as well as pastures, and the occasional front yard visit. There are ten species of herons and egrets that regularly occur in our area, and they belong to the group we call wading birds due to their long legs and tendency to often wade around feeding in bodies of water. They are mostly tall and easy to see as they normally walk around in the open, except maybe the Green Heron which is small and likes to hide in reeds along shorelines.
There is, however, an exception… well, two actually. There are two birds called night-herons. The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and the Black-crowned Night-Heron, are fairly closely related, and they do not operate during the day near as much as during the nighttime! They are, as their names points out… herons of the night. Both species feed mostly at night, and roost in shrubs and trees during the day where they blend in really well. Body wise they are both shaped similarly, but their plumages tell the adults apart. Juveniles are both brown with small white dots and are harder to tell apart.
The bird that may be seen by more folks is probably the Yellow-crowned as it feeds a bit more during morning and evening hours as well as during the night. They are also seen more in urban areas and frequent neighborhoods more than its cousin. Here in Lake Jackson they can often be seen feeding in the drainage ditches along roads in town, and they nest in tall trees in several neighborhoods.
They create nesting colonies from just a few nests to several dozen depending on how many tall open trees are around. They build flimsy stick nests that often fall apart in storms, and they are known for stealing a stick or two from their neighbor’s nest! You can see the chicks easily in the flat stick nests, and the adults perching near each nest. The chicks are… well, lovable only by a mother at first, with all fuzzy hairdos. It is really fun to be able to “host” such a colony in one’s yard or neighborhood, watching the young growing up. Granted, it can get a bit smelly as night-herons eat mostly crayfish and often regurgitate the crustacean’s shells… a bit of a messy situation.
Yellow-crowned Night-Herons have been around a long time apparently, as they have shown up several times in the fossil record, with the earliest recorded fossil at two million years old from Sarasota, Florida. We don’t know exactly how long they live on average but the oldest Yellow-crowned Night-Heron on record was banded in Mexico in 1974 and was at least six years, three months old. Wouldn’t surprise me if they live to ten years or so, with an average of five.
Right now many young herons and egrets are fledging and taking flight. Enjoy nature and keep an eye out for them!
Martin Hagne is the Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. The GCBO is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving the birds and their habitats along the entire Gulf Coast, and beyond into their Central and South America wintering grounds.