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Bird Species Spotlight: Yellow-crowned Night Heron

by Jake Jacoby | September 5, 2017

Yellow-crowned night heron © Jake JacobyThe yellow-crowned night heron forages both during the day and at night. In most coastal areas, the tide can trump the time of day as most foraging occurs from 3 hours before high tide to 3 hours after. These birds are found year-round along the southern Atlantic coast but can also be found breeding as far north as Michigan and Ontario, Canada. All of the photographs that I took for this article were taken at Fort DeSoto at the southern end of Pinellas County, Florida.

Yellow-crowned night heron by water © Jake Jacoby

Yellow-crowned night heron © Jake Jacoby

Yellow-crowned night herons feed primarily on freshwater and saltwater crustaceans, including blue-shell crabs, fiddler crabs, crayfish, and shrimp. They will also feed on frogs and small fish when available. They walk slowly, using a bent-over posture when foraging, and fly with slow wingbeats. When within striking distance of their prey, they will lunge with their bills, swallowing smaller animals whole. They will grab larger crabs by the legs of pincers and shake them apart, then swallow the pieces whole or use their bill to break them apart.

Heron during breeding display © Jake Jacoby

Breeding display © Jake Jacoby

Breeding habitats of the yellow-crowned night heron include barrier islands, coastal lowlands, inland lowlands, mangroves, and edges of lagoons. Their nest consists of a platform of sticks with a slight hollow in the center and can measure more than 4 feet across. The male and female build the nest together as part of their pair bonding. At first, the male will carry sticks such as twigs and small branches to the female, who begins organizing the nest. Later, both gather and place materials on the nest. It normally takes them about 10 days to complete the nest building. They may use the same nest many times adding materials each year, or may occupy and refurbish a vacant one.

Heron guarding the nest © Jake Jacoby

Guarding the nest © Jake Jacoby

The female will lay 2–6 pale blue eggs, depending on the weather conditions and temperature. Incubation will be done by both the male and female. Eggs hatch in 24–29 days and both parents will feed the young by regurgitating food into the nest rather than feeding each bird individually. Normally they will fledge about 6 weeks after they hatch. At birth, the chicks are vulnerable and are completely dependent upon their parents. It takes about 3 years for these herons to display the full physical appearance of adults. Prior to that, the young birds show signs of immaturity such as a brownish body, an over greyish head, drab colors, and spots and streaks on their plumage.

Yellow-crowned night heron with shrimp © Jake Jacoby

Yellow-crowned night heron with shrimp © Jake Jacoby

The most common call of the yellow-crowned night heron is a loud, sharp and quick squawk that the bird gives shortly after taking off or uses as an alarm call or aggression call. The young will beg for food with a soft “chu-chu-chu” call that becomes louder as the chicks grow older and more demanding.

Yellow-crowned night heron with crab © Jake Jacoby

Juvenile yellow-crowned night heron with crab © Jake Jacoby

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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