Bird Species Spotlight: Boat-billed Heron

by Jake Jacoby | March 24, 2019

© Jake JacobyI saw the boat-billed heron in August 2018 for the very first time while travelling along the riverbanks of the Cuiaba River.

I was in a boat equipped for photography in the Pantanal region of Brazil. My brother and I were travelling in the Pantanal on a photographic workshop organized and hosted by www.naturescapes.net.


Boat-billed heron © Jake Jacoby

Boat-billed heron © Jake Jacoby

The Pantanal is part national park and part a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Pantanal is the largest tropical wetland in the world, covering over 70,000 square miles; an area the size of Washington State, 10 times larger than the Florida Everglades, and it lies right in the middle of South America. While the Pantanal is often overshadowed by the Amazon rain forest to the north, it quietly boasts the highest concentration of wildlife on the continent.

The boat-billed heron watched us closely with its huge and bulging eyes as we slowed down the boat and stared in wonder at this atypical member of the heron family. The heron sat quietly in the mangroves along the shoreline and carefully watched our approach. This bird is very unique because of its huge, shoe-shaped bill. The bill is massive, broad, scoop-like and reminds me of an upturned keel of a boat, hence its name. The boat-billed heron is found from Mexico south to Peru, Brazil, and northeastern Argentina.

Boat-billed heron perched © Jake Jacoby

Watching me approach © Jake Jacoby

This heron uses its unusual bill to hunt amphibians, small fish, shrimp, other crustaceans, insects, and small vertebrates, while wading through shallow water, and foraging in vegetative streams and lagoons. When hunting from the mangroves, the heron will use low-hanging branches and mangrove roots to stand over the water and watch for its prey.

In order to capture its prey, the boat-billed heron will lunge at fish or scoop the surface of the water with its bill which is uniquely shaped for this method of capture. They have also been observed to stand and slowly stalk prey, or disturb the water and then chase prey. They forage nocturnally, and usually leave the roost 30 minutes after sundown to feed. They will not feed during daylight, bright moonlight or when an artificial light is introduced.

Boat-billed heron mangroves © Jake Jacoby

Resting in the mangroves © Jake Jacoby

Courtship display is quite ritualized and includes carefully coordinated bill-touching and false fighting. They also have a crest which is used in mate attraction. This heron, unlike other herons, is very aggressive when defending its nest and young against potential predators, scaring away other species of birds, and vocalizing loudly, even lunging at anything approaching the nest, including humans.

Boat-billed heron on branch © Jake Jacoby

Boat-billed heron © Jake Jacoby

Boat-billed herons breed during the rainy season, April to August, and will normally produce two clutches during this time. They usually nest in small colonies but will also nest in solitude on occasion. The nest is a frail platform of sticks, small for the size of this bird, and placed in the mangroves, on a horizontal fork overhanging the water. The female will lay her first clutch in February during the end of the dry season. The female will lay two to four eggs, pale blue with brown speckles, with more eggs being laid during the first nesting period than the second. Incubation lasts for 20 days and the chicks are born altricial (helpless) but they develop quickly and can move along branches with great agility. The chicks fledge and leave the nest in 6 to 8 weeks after hatching. Both parents will assist in incubation, chick rearing, and feeding the chicks by regurgitation.

The chicks are unique in the way they peck through their shells since they are born with two specialized teeth used for such purposes. Newly hatched nestlings have green-yellow skin, with their upper-parts covered in gray down feathers. Juveniles are darker in color than adults and lack a crest until they mature.

About the Author

To see more of Jake's work as well as his favorite photographs check out his Flickr page.

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