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Black-crowned Night-Heron

Nycticorax nycticorax ORDER: PELECANIFORMES FAMILY: ARDEIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Black-crowned Night-Herons are stocky birds compared to many of their long-limbed heron relatives. They’re most active at night or at dusk, when you may see their ghostly forms flapping out from daytime roosts to forage in wetlands. In the light of day adults are striking in gray-and-black plumage and long white head plumes. These social birds breed in colonies of stick nests usually built over water. They live in fresh, salt, and brackish wetlands and are the most widespread heron in the world.

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Keys to identification Help

Herons
Herons
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Black-crowned Night-Herons are small herons with rather squat, thick proportions. They have thick necks, large, flat heads, and heavy, pointed bills. The legs are short and, in flight, barely reach the end of the tail. The wings are broad and rounded.

  • Color Pattern

    Adults are light-gray birds with a neatly defined black back and black crown. Immatures are brown with large white spots on the wings and blurry streaks on the underparts. Adults have all-black bills; immatures have yellow-and-black bills.

  • Behavior

    Black-crowned Night-Herons often spend their days perched on tree limbs or concealed among foliage and branches. They forage in the evening and at night, in water, on mudflats, and on land. In flight they fold their head back against their shoulders, almost making the neck disappear.

  • Habitat

    These are social birds that tend to roost and nest in groups, although they typically forage on their own. Look for them in most wetland habitats across North America, including estuaries, marshes, streams, lakes, and reservoirs.

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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Black-crowned Night-Heron

    Adult
    • Stocky, short-necked heron
    • Heavy black bill
    • White underparts contrast with black crown and back
    • © Matt Bango, Great Kills Park, Staten Island, New York, June 2011
  • Adult

    Black-crowned Night-Heron

    Adult
    • Medium-sized heron
    • Stocky and compact
    • Black back and crown
    • Silver-gray wings
    • © Robinsegg, Bear River Bird Refuge, Utah, May 2009
  • Juvenile

    Black-crowned Night-Heron

    Juvenile
    • Stocky and short-necked
    • Heavy, dagger-like bill
    • Juvenile streaked brown below with white spots on wings
    • © Bill Thompson, Big Bend NP, Texas, April 2012
  • Juvenile

    Black-crowned Night-Heron

    Juvenile
    • Medium-sized heron
    • Short-necked and stocky
    • Juvenile shows bold white spots on wings
    • © Robin Arnold, Ohio, August 2008

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

    Adult
    • Similar to Black-crowned Night Heron but lankier with longer neck
    • Shorter, thinner bill
    • Bold black and white facial pattern
    • Blue-gray overall with black streaks on back and wings
    • © Laurel Williams/GBBC, Miami, Florida
  • Juvenile

    Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

    Juvenile
    • Similar to juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron but lankier
    • Thicker, rounded, all-dark bill
    • Smaller white spots on wings
    • © Carlos Escamilla, Laredo, Texas, September 2010
  • Adult

    American Bittern

    Adult
    • Larger and heavier-bodied than Black-crowned Night-Heron
    • Longer, thinner bill
    • Camouflage pattern on back/wings with no white spotting
    • Often hidden in reeds or cattails
    • © Kelly Azar, Chester County, Pennsylvania, April 2011
  • Immature

    Green Heron

    Immature
    • Smaller and more compact than Black-crowned Night-Heron
    • Dark, greenish gray back with rufous on face and neck
    • Thinner, longer, pointed bill
    • © Joel DeYoung, Ottawa County, Michigan, August 2012

Similar Species

Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are more restricted to the southern United States than Black-crowned Night-Herons. They have thicker bills than Black-crowned Night-Herons and slightly longer legs that extend past the tail in flight. Adult Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are darker gray, particularly on the underparts, with an overall darker head, prominent white cheek patch, and yellow crown. Immature night-herons are more similar, but young Yellow-crowned have much finer white spotting on the wings. Green Herons are smaller than night-herons, with more slender bills and less bulky proportions. Adult Green Herons are darker and more richly colored in green and reddish tones; immature Green Herons are redder on the neck than night-herons. American Bitterns are larger with a longer, narrower bill and longer neck than night-herons. They are a lighter straw-brown and they do not have the white spotting of immature night-herons.

Find This Bird

Black-crowned Night-Herons are common in wetlands across North America—you just may have to look a little harder than you do for most herons. True to their name, these birds do most of their feeding at night and spend much of the day hunched among leaves and branches at the water’s edge. Evening and dusk are good times to look for these rather stout, short-necked herons flying out to foraging grounds.