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20 Types of Herons: Species, Facts and Photos

This article discusses different types of herons and their unique characteristics, adaptations, behavior patterns, and dietary preferences. Delving into the kinds of herons can give us a new perspective on these coastal birds.

Related read: Birds with Big Beaks.

Heron Classification

Distinguishable by their long legs, long necks, and unique plumages, herons belong to the Ardeidae family, comprising 72 bird species spread across 18 genera2. Some of the members are named egrets and bitterns.

On a higher level, herons, along with other wading birds like ibises and pelicans, belong to the Pelecaniformes order. 

These graceful birds live worldwide but prefer the tropics and wetlands. These habitats are crucial in shaping their feeding, mating, and survival strategies.

Read more: Types of Birds,

20 Types of Heron Species

1. Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)

Great Blue Heron
Photo by Kozarluha on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

Great Blue Herons inhabit North American wetlands, standing at 3.2 to 4.5 feet, with a wingspan of 6.6 feet. Their plumage is a smoky gray or blue blend with a white head and a black feathered cap. 

These wading birds live in Central America, the Caribbean, and the Galapagos Islands. They can thrive in various habitats, such as marshes, swamps, shorelines, and suburban ponds. 

Likewise, they have a diverse diet, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, insects, and other birds. They stand motionless in shallow water and wait for prey to come within striking distance. 

It's primarily solitary, except during the breeding season when it forms colonies known as heronries.

2. Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Grey Heron
Photo by Robert So on Pexels.

The Grey Heron is a bird in Europe, Asia, and certain parts of Africa. They hang out near water, using their bill to catch fish, amphibians, or small mammals. 

Standing 39 inches tall, this type of heron displays a blend of white, grey, and black with yellow beaks and brown legs.

These birds are primarily colonial nesters, building their nests high in trees alongside other herons, reinforcing their strong presence in their chosen habitat.

3. White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis)

White-bellied Heron
Photo by Dr. Raju Kasambe on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The White-Bellied Heron, or the Imperial Heron, is a bird with a distinct appearance. This bird stands at approximately 50 inches tall and has a white belly contrasting its dark grey feathers. Additionally, it has a long, slender neck with a greyish-white stripe down the front. 

The bird mainly lives in the eastern Himalayan foothills, including India, Bhutan, Myanmar, and parts of Nepal. They inhabit freshwater marshes, rivers with sand or gravel bars, and lakes in hilly or mountainous regions. 

The bird feeds on fish, amphibians, insects, and small mammals. It uses a hunting strategy of standing still in shallow waters and waiting for its prey to come within striking distance. 

Unfortunately, less than 250 mature individuals are left due to habitat loss, habitat disturbances, and exploitation. Based on the latest IUCN assessment, they categorized the heron as critically endangered3.

4. Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea)

 Purple Heron
Photo by A.Savin on Wikimedia Commons.

The Purple Heron is a bird species in central and southern Europe, Africa, and Asia. It has a unique color palette consisting of dark reddish-brown feathers, a purplish-grey head and neck, a black beak with yellow at the base, and yellow eyes framed by a thin black line. 

Moreover, this solitary hunter prefers to hunt in marshy shallows, where it feeds on fish, amphibians, and insects. It also stands still in the water until prey comes within striking distance. 

5. Goliath Heron (Ardea goliath)

Goliath Heron
Photo by Bernard DUPONT on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Goliath Heron holds the title of the biggest heron species. It stands a towering five feet tall, with a wide wingspan extending up to seven and a half feet. They have a dusky yellow head, a formidable bill, and large, ash-grey wings tipped with black. 

Habitats for Goliath Herons usually revolve around shallow waters. Fresh rivers, calm estuaries, and serene lakes are their favorites for their rich food sources. Its diverse diet ranges from fish and amphibians to small mammals, insects, and reptiles. 

A characteristic unique to the Goliath Heron is its patient hunting approach. Instead of energetically chasing its prey, it waits calmly, swiftly catching its meal when the time is right.

6. Pacific Heron (Ardea pacifica)

Pacific Heron
Photo by Wayne Butterworth on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 3.0 (Cropped from original).

The Pacific Heron is a solitary bird living in the wetlands of Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea. It has a white neck, dark grey body, yellowish-green beak, and black legs and feet. 

This bird can adapt to different environments and venture into farmlands and urban parks for food. It preys on fish, amphibians, and insects. 

During the breeding season, the Pacific Heron transforms, gaining elegant plumes adorning its back and a more vibrant beak. It also makes a croaky call as part of its courtship dance.

7. Great Egret (Ardea alba)

Great Egret
Photo by Chuck Homler (FocusOnWildlife.Me) on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

With an all-white body, the Great Egret is a large bird in wetland habitats that stands at a height of 3.3 feet and has a wingspan of up to 5.6 feet. It also has a yellow bill and black legs, which can get darker and lighter, respectively, during breeding season. 

It is known for its still hunting style and preys on fish, amphibians, small mammals, and insects. 

During breeding, males fan out their long dorsal feathers, called aigrettes, to attract a mate. The Great Egret population was once near extinction due to hunting for its aigrettes but has since recovered thanks to conservation efforts.

These elegant birds are depicted in banknotes and coins worldwide. They are in 5-Brazilian reais, New Zealand $2 coin, and Hungarian 5-forint coin.

8. Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides)

Squacco Heron
Photo by Bernard DUPONT on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Squacco Heron is a bird in the wetlands of Europe and Asia. It migrates thousands of miles to Africa during winter. 

During the breeding season, it transforms, with delicate feather plumes sprouting from the back of its head and its beak turning a fiery red.

It preys on fish, frogs, or insects and captures them with a quick jab of its beak. 

9. Japanese Night Heron (Gorsachius goisagi)

The Japanese Night Heron is a medium-sized heron that inhabits dense, wet woodlands and is often found near streams or rivers. It has a dark brown body, a black cap, and a white stripe trailing from behind its eye down to its neck, which makes it quite distinctive. 

This migratory bird leaves its breeding grounds in Japan during autumn. It flies to warmer regions in the Philippines and Indonesia for food. 

These crepuscular herons primarily consume soil-dwellers like earthworms and mature snails, utilizing their sturdy beak for digging. It also extends its diet to shoreline crustaceans and small fish.

10. Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) 

Black-crowned Night Heron
Photo by Charles Homler d/b/a Focus On Wildlife on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

Black-crowned night Herons have black crowns and backs and pale underbelly. They also have striking red eyes. 

Found in every continent except Antarctica, this stocky heron lives in wetlands and city parks and can adapt to fresh and saltwater. 

These types of herons are ambush predators, standing still at water edges and patiently waiting for their prey. Their diverse diet ranges from small fish to rodents and, occasionally, plant matter. Uniquely, they're among the few heron species that engage in bait fishing1, demonstrating rare tool use among birds.

11. Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea)

 Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Photo by SandyCole on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

The Yellow-crowned Night Herons are grey-blue birds with black-scaled wings and long yellow legs. Its black glossy head features a pale yellow crown and white cheeks, creating a horizontal stripe pattern. Their striking eyes are dark orange or red.

Only found in the Americas, these birds live in shallow waters like marshes, swamps, and coasts full of mangroves. These are areas where crustaceans, their primary food, are thriving.

12. Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)

Cattle Egret
Photo by Ken and Nyetta on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

Cattle Egrets have white plumages. Their feathers adopt a buff hue during the breeding season, especially on the back, chest, and crown.

Unlike other types of herons, they have adapted to dry grasslands instead of the typical water-dwelling habitat of other herons. They often hang around large mammals like cattle, taking advantage of the insects that get disturbed as these animals graze and move around.

They construct small platforms of sticks in colonies for nesting, often in trees or shrubs close to water. 

Their eggs are pale bluish-white, and both parents share responsibility for incubating the eggs and feeding the chicks.

13. Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea)

Little Blue Heron
Photo by Dario Sanches on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Little Blue Herons are medium-sized birds from the heron family. These birds start life with pure white feathers, which makes them easy to confuse with other species. However, as they mature, their feathers become distinctive slate-blue colors. They also have a distinct two-toned bill.

Found in southeastern United States to northern South America, they prefer shallow waters of fresh and saltwater habitats. They feed mainly on fish, crustaceans, and insects, occasionally consuming small reptiles or amphibians. 

Like most types of herons, it adopts a "stand and wait" hunting strategy, remaining still in the water until prey swims within range.

14. Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor)

Tricolored Heron
Photo by SandyCole on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

The Tricolored Heron is a medium-sized and slender bird with unique three-toned feathers that consist of blue-gray, lavender, and white colors. The bird's neck is a deep chestnut, contrasting its white belly and dark upper body. During the breeding season, these colors are more prominent and eye-catching. 

This bird lives in the mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coast of the United States, Central America, the Caribbean, central Brazil, and Peru. It can live in coastal marshes, swamps, streams, and tidal flats with salt and freshwater. 

Tricolored Herons have a varied diet, including small fish, crustaceans, insects, and sometimes even amphibians. It hunts its prey in shallow water. It is also territorial and will defend its feeding ground from other herons.

15. Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens)

Reddish Egret
Photo by Googie man on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

Reddish Egrets are a rare type of egret found in North America. It prefers to live in coastal lagoons, mangroves, and tidal flats and avoids freshwater habitats. 

The bird is characterized by its long legs and neck, a pinkish bill with a black tip, and bluish-black legs and feet. Two color variations exist: the dark morph, with a slate blue body and red, plumed head and neck, and the white morph, consisting of pure white plumage.

The active heron habitually stalks its prey of fish, frogs, crustaceans, and insects in shallow waters near mud flats. It employs a dynamic hunting method, running briskly and using its wings to dim water glare.

16. Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)

Snowy Egret
Photo by Robert So on Pexels.

The Snowy Egret is a visually striking bird with white plumage. Its slender black legs, bright yellow feet, and thin black bill starkly contrast its white feathers. 

During the breeding season, the Snowy Egret grows wispy plumes down its back, which were once highly sought after in the 19th century. 

Snowy egrets inhabit various habitats, ranging from salt marshes to freshwater wetlands and islands to inland ponds and lakes. They live from the United States to South America and the West Indies. 

The Snowy Egret migrates south to warmer climates when winter arrives in the northern parts of their habitat.

17. Chinese Egret (Egretta eulophotes)

Chinese Egret
Photo by YCCHEN TW on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Chinese Egret, also known as Swinhoe's Egret, is a medium-sized bird with a prominent yellow bill that curves downward, found in the coastal habitats of East Asia. During winter, the egret migrates south; some of its kind reach as far as Indonesia and the Philippines.

Mating season starts with a transformation, where the egret's bill darkens to a stark black, highlighting the ornate plumes sprouting on its back. 

The Chinese Egret hunts solo or in small groups, feeding on various fish and invertebrates in shallow coastal waters. 

18. Nankeen Night Heron (Nycticorax caledonicus)

Nankeen Night Heron
Photo by Michael Wifall on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Nankeen Night Heron has a contrasting appearance with a heavy black bill and white face with a cinnamon tint. Its grey-black crown and nape feature white plumes during breeding. The upperparts flaunt an intense chestnut color while the underparts are white. 

With straw yellow iris and creamy yellow legs, this bird's colors peak during breeding, setting a rich, rufous tone across its back, tail, and upper wing.

The bird lives in Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia, and Australia. This nocturnal hunter preys on fish, amphibians, crustaceans, and insects. 

19. White-Faced Heron (Egretta novaehollandiae)

White-Faced Heron
Photo by Glen Fergus on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 (Cropped from original).

The White-Faced Heron, medium-sized and pale blue-grey, features a white crown, forehead, chin, and upper throat, with varied patterns. Its iris varies from grey to cinnamon, while the beak is grey-based black. Notably, in the breeding season, it has a pinkish-brown foreneck and breast and a blue-grey back.

It uses the "stand and wait" hunting technique and preys on fish, amphibians, insects, and small mammals. 

During the mating season, male and female herons share parental duties and build nests of twigs and sticks found nearby. They often hide their nests in trees or shrubs near water. 

20. Green Heron (Butorides virescens)

Green Heron
Photo by Epachamo on Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Green Herons stand approximately 17 inches tall, with a wingspan of just about 26 inches. This small heron sports a dark green back contrasting starkly with a rich, chestnut-colored body. They also have yellow-orange legs.

This type of heron thrives in various habitats, ranging from freshwater bodies to marshes, streams, and ponds. This bird holds no preference between coastal or inland settings.

Green herons use bait like twigs or insects to lure fish.

1

Ruxton, G. D., & Hansell, M. (2010). Fishing with a Bait or Lure: A Brief Review of the Cognitive Issues. Ethology, 117(1), 1–9.

2

World Bird Names. ( 2023). Ibis, spoonbills, herons, Hamerkop, Shoebill, pelicans. IOC World Bird List Version 13.2. International Ornithologists' Union.

3

BirdLife International. (2018). Ardea insignis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22697021A134201407.

By Mike Gomez, BA.

Mike is a degree-qualified researcher and writer passionate about increasing global awareness about climate change and encouraging people to act collectively in resolving these issues.

Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.

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