Birds of the World



  Pied Heron



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Ciconiiformes - Herons and Bitterns
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Families: Herons and Bitterns, Hammerkop, Ibises and Spoonbills, Storks, Shoebill
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Cooperative Feeding
Lava Heron, Striated Heron, Scarlet Ibis, Black-faced Ibis
Great Egret, Pied Heron, Grey Heron, Great Bittern, herons (woodcut), Hamerkop,
Sacred Ibis
, Australian White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, White Stork,
, Maguari Stork, Black-necked Stork, Shoebill
  Family Ardeidae - Herons and Bitterns
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  65 (64-63) species, 19 (20 genera). Ardeids are widely distributed in temperate and tropical regions in swamps, marshes, and along shores around the world and occur on most islands.
   Herons are medium to large birds. Sexes are alike in most species. These long-legged waders have long necks, folded into an "S" shape during flight. The bill is straight and pointed.  [The Boat-billed Heron, Agamia agami, has a unique, broad, spade-shaped bill with a hooked tip.] 
    The lores (area between the base of the upper mandible and eye) are bare and may be brightly colored during breeding season. The bill is straight or slightly curved with a "tooth" near the tip and the cutting edges ("tomia") are often serrate near the tip. Their nostrils are holorhinal and the interorbital septum has a window. They have 19-20 cervical vertebrae. The 6th cervical vertebra is elongate and articulates so the neck folds in an "S" shaped curve (herons and bitterns typically fly with the neck folded, not extended as in ibises and storks). To maintain an appropriate center of gravity, herons and bitters also fly with their legs folded against the body. Ibises and storks trail their feet to balance the extended head. Wings of ciconiiformes are long and rounded and they have a short tail.
   Herons have 4 or 6 paired patches of powder-down on the sides of their rump and breast. Powder-down are specially modified feathers that grow continuously and separate into graphite-like shards used to condition the plumage (the typical oil gland found in most birds is reduced or missing). They have an aftershart. They have 11 primaries and  usually 12 tail feathers (rarely 8 or 10).Their feathers are soft. Most species have long, ornamental plumes on the head, chest, breast, or scapulars - becomming wispy and etheral in a few ("aigrettes"). The oil gland is variable - generally small, bilobed and tufted (it is large and untufted in Cochlearis) Their pelvic muscles are AXY (rarely XY).  Flexor tendons are Type 1 or 7. The claw of the middle toe is pectinate (comb-like) and is used in preening. The tarsus is scutellate (booted) in front. Their is a short web between the anterior toes and the hallux is at the level of the other toes.
   They typically feed on fish but may take a variety of arthropods, molluscs and aquatic invertebrates. They also eat small vertebrates. They may sit quietly waiting for prey to approach. They may stalk fish by walking or running. They may "hood" their wings to attract fish in the shadow (or improve their vision by cutting surface reflection). They may stir the substrate with their feet to disturb prey. They often feed alone but sometimes feed in mixed groups and may follow swimming waterbirds (or dolphins) in estuaries to prey on disturbed schools of fish. They will also eat a variety of small vertebrates - amphibians, lizards, snakes, etc. - and may forage in open fields or hedgerows as well as along shores (watch Great Egrets stalking anole lizards in palm fronds on the island). Cattle Egrets, Bulbulcus ibis, feed on open fields, often following cattle or farm machinery to find prey.
   Herons do not swim but may learn to forage over deeper water by hovering or landing on the surface - even making shallow dives under the surface. I've watched a Great Blue Heron do this...
   Most herons are monogamous. They often nest in mixed colonies (one exception is the Green Heron). Males arrive first and build or repair a suitable nest. A variety of displays are used to attract females. Nests are simple, loose platforms. They may lay 1-3 clutches/year, each with 1-7 eggs. Their eggs are greenish or pale blue. Incubation takes 14-20 days (both parents participate). Hatching is asynchronous and siblicide by the older chick(s) is common. Young remain in the nest after hatching and are cared for by their parents (semialtricial). They fledge at about 25 days (small  bitterns) to 13 weeks (larger herons). Young have one coat of nestling down.
   Wading bird populations were decimated at the turn of the last century by plume hunters slaughtering thousands of adults for their plumes (semi-plumes or "aigrettes") used in courtship. This slaughter and the resulting near extinction of some of the wader species had led to a number of conservation activities including the Endangered Species Act and many populations have now recovered... 

   Presently, 3 subfamilies are recognized:
Subfamily Tigrisomatinae - Boat-billed Heron, Tiger-herons
Subfamily Botaurinae - Zigzag Heron, Bitterns
Subfamily Ardeinae - Day-herons, Egrets, Night-herons
   Some place the Night-herons in a separate subfamily, Nycticorinae.
    Rufescent Tiger-Heron

Rufescent Tiger-Heron,
Tigriosoma lineatum
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Photo by Ed Konrad


Pied Heron

Grey Heron, Ardea cinerea, the European
equivalent of our Great Blue Heron. Volendam.
The Netherlands. This species is widely distributed in the Palearctic region (Europe and Asia) and Africa. It is smaller, less massive, and more delicate than our Great Blue Heron (it is close to the size of a Great Egret).
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Grey Herons
Pied Heron, Ardea (Egretta) picata.
Kuranda, Queensland, Australia.
The bird is "sunning" with spread wings.
Click for a similar posture found in a
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.

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Herons and Night-herons. Tinted plate from Brehms Tierleben, 1892. The bird in the lower left is the Grey Heron (also pictured above). The three birds in the lower right are probably Great Egrets, Egretta alba. Two (Black-crowned) Night Herons, Nycticorax nycticorax, are perched. The bird on the branch is probably an immature Night Heron
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Great Bittern. Botarus stellaris.
Woodcut. Brehms Tierleben, 1892.
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Cooperative Feeding in Estuarine Species
     In winter, social feeding groups of Hooded Mergansers are common in our estuaries. Groups of 4 or 5 to 8 to 10 or 12, including both males and females, swim and fish in shallow estuaries such as Capn' Sam's Creek when the tide is relatively low. They bob up and down like corks as they pursue small fish. They are often accompanied by up to 4-5 Snowy Egrets (and often 1 or 2 Tricolored Herons) on the bank. These small herons actively track the feeding ducks and probably benefit from the disturbance of fish by their presence, making it easier for the herons to feed. Our small herons also follow feeding Red-breasted Mergansers (below).
   I have also seen a Tricolored Heron follow a Double-crested Cormorant, even though the cormorant cuts a broader swath through the creek and swims more rapidly than the mergansers. At one point the heron got too close and interfered with the cormorant who took a nip at the heron's foot. The heron "yipped" and retreated.
   Dolphins and Great-Blue Herons may share a similar arrangement - I have seen these larger herons actively following foraging dolphins in Capn' Sam's Creek, benefiting from the lack of caution shown by larger fish escaping the dolphins.
   In both of these cases, it is doubtful that the swimming fish-eaters benefit from the wading attendants but it is likely that the herons are better able to catch disturbed fish...
  Feeding Feeding Feeding cormorant, attended by a Snowy Egret. Capn' Sam's Creek. The egret is pacing the cormorant's progress and is capturing prey disturbed by the swimming bird. (See above.)
  A Snowy Egret is attending a feeding group of Red-breasted Mergansers (check out the duck in the center of the right photo - it might be a Common Merganser). Pitt St., Mt. Pleasant. The egret remains in the shallows as the ducks forage around its position. Feeding Feeding
    Banner - Pied Heron. Bird World. Kuranda. Australia.