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Yellow-crowned Night-Heron


IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

While not as slender as a typical heron, the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron’s smooth purple-gray colors, sharp black-and-white face, and long yellow plumes lend it a touch of elegance. They forage at all hours of the day and night, stalking crustaceans in shallow wetlands and wet fields. Their diet leans heavily on crabs and crayfish, which they catch with a lunge and shake apart, or swallow whole. They’re most common in coastal marshes, barrier islands, and mangroves, but their range extends inland as far as the Midwest.

At a GlanceHelp

Both Sexes
21.7–27.6 in
55–70 cm
22.9–28.2 oz
650–800 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Cattle Egret; smaller and stockier than a Great Egret.
Other Names
  • Bihoreau violace (French)
  • Pedrete enmascarado, Chicuaco enmacarado (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Yellow-crowned Night-Herons forage both during the day and at night—in coastal areas the tide can trump the time of day: most foraging occurs from 3 hours before high tide to 3 hours after.
  • To build their nests, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons usually break dead, brittle twigs and branches directly from standing vegetation. In some colonies, they may completely strip trees of their twigs. They also sometimes steal twigs from other nests.
  • Along the Atlantic Coast, the timing of their breeding season depends on when crabs emerge in the spring, which itself depends on local temperatures.
  • Found year-round along the crustacean-rich southern Atlantic coast, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons in North America can also breed inland by feeding on crayfish in streams. They may breed as far north as Michigan and Ontario, and individuals can appear even farther north and west in spring (mainly adults) and late summer or early fall (juveniles).
  • This species shows up several times in the fossil record, and the earliest recorded fossil is 2–2.5 million years old (from Sarasota, Florida).
  • The oldest Yellow-crowned Night-Heron on record, banded in Mexico in 1974, was at least 6 years, 3 months old.



Yellow-crowned Night-Herons breed in and near wetlands primarily in the southeast United States, in areas of abundant crustaceans. Although concentrated on the southern Atlantic Coast, they are regularly found inland as far north as Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and sometimes appear in Michigan and Ontario. Their breeding habitat includes barrier islands, coastal lowlands, inland lowlands, forests with open understories, mangroves, and edges of lagoons. In coastal areas they forage along the edges of tidal marshes, tide pools, calm beaches, and lagoons. Inland, they forage along shallow creeks, rivers, ponds, lakes, and swamps, and occasionally on lawns, plowed fields, and other upland sites. After the breeding season many individuals disperse to the north and west before migrating to wintering grounds. They stay year-round along the coastal edge of their U.S. breeding range, in locations where the climate permits crab activity throughout the year.



Yellow-crowned Night-Herons feed primarily on freshwater and saltwater crustaceans, including marsh crabs, fiddler crabs, ghost crabs, mole crabs, mud crabs, blue crabs, lady crabs, green crabs, rock crabs, and toad crabs. In inland areas they feed almost exclusively on crayfish. They also eat smaller amounts of earthworms, leeches, marine worms, centipedes, snails, mussels, insects, scorpions, frogs, tadpoles, marine fish, freshwater fish, small snakes, turtles, young birds, and small mammals. Standing still or walking slowly, they forage within several feet of the water’s edge, separated from other foraging individuals by about 15 feet. When within striking distance of prey they lunge with their bills, swallowing smaller animals whole. They grab larger crabs by the legs or pincers and shake them apart, then swallow the pieces whole or use their bills to break them further. They may also impale crabs, paralyzing them to make them easier to handle.


Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
1.8–2.2 in
4.6–5.7 cm
Egg Width
1.2–1.5 in
3–3.7 cm
Incubation Period
24–25 days
Nestling Period
30–43 days
Egg Description
Pale bluish green.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, covered in white or pale gray down, with eyes open after 1 day.
Nest Description

The nest, a platform of sticks with a slight hollow in the center, can measure more than 4 feet across. The male and female build it together as part of their pair bonding. Initially, the male carries sticks to the female, who begins the nest. Later, both gather and place materials on the nest. Where possible, they strip sticks from the limbs of dead trees rather than gathering them from the ground. Sticks can be up to about 20 inches long and an inch thick. The twig nest is sometimes lined with leaves, vines, or Spanish moss. The building process averages about 10 days. Night-herons may reuse nests, adding to them each year, or refurbish vacant ones.

Nest Placement


Yellow-crowned Night-Herons nest near or over water in trees such as pine and oak—as high as 60 feet or more off the ground—or on lower vegetation such as mulberry, myrtle, hackberry, and mangrove. On islands with limited vegetation, they may nest on rock ledges. The male chooses the location, and the pair may start several nests before completing one. They nest alone or in colonies of up to several hundred pairs, sometimes with other heron species. Some colony sites remain in use for more than 20 years.



Yellow-crowned Night-Herons usually walk slowly, using a bent-over posture when foraging, and fly with slow wingbeats. Courting Yellow-crowned Night-Herons perform display flights, along with a neck-stretching display: the male slowly raises and then quickly retracts his head while fanning his long shoulder plumes. The female will sometimes reciprocate. They form socially monogamous pairs, and some maintain their bonds from year to year. Pairs may nest close together, but both adults and young defend the site from intruders, lunging and jabbing with their bills while squawking. Older young may peck or trample younger siblings and even push them out of the nest. After the breeding season, young birds often disperse to the north or west before heading to wintering grounds.


status via IUCN

Least Concern

Yellow-crowned Night Herons are fairly numerous, but their population trends are hard to assess because they nesting birds can be hard to see during large standardized surveys. The North American Breeding Bird Survey identified no statistically significant change in their population between 1966 and 2014, although trends suggest a decline. Their population has fluctuated in the last century or so: after shrinking southward in the 19th century, the species expanded northward dramatically in the early 20th century before retreating again slightly after 1950. The reasons for these fluctuations are unclear. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan rates them at least a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and lists them as a Species of Moderate Concern. They are not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, though they are protected in some states near the edge of their range. Like all wetland birds they are vulnerable to habitat loss or degradation. Historically, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were hunted as food or for their plumes. In residential areas where herons nest over houses, roads, and driveways, human residents sometimes disturb the nesting birds on purpose to drive them away.


Range Map Help

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings


Resident to medium-distance migrant. Atlantic Coast breeders move along the coast or winter in the West Indies, while Mississippi Valley and Gulf Coast populations probably move across the Gulf of Mexico or along the coast to Central and South America.

Find This Bird

Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are especially common in coastal areas, but you can also find them inland along wooded river valleys as well as in open habitats such as wet lawns and golf courses. Look for them foraging on the ground, often along tidal creeks, where they stand still or walk slowly with a hunched-over posture. Scan with binoculars or a spotting scope across saltmarshes and look for the bold yellow-and-black patterning of the bird’s head emerging from a gap in the vegetation. Nesting birds can be well hidden in trees and may occur with other heron species. These birds are often active at night, so keep an eye out at dusk and dawn for night-herons commuting from roosts to foraging areas. During late summer and fall, young birds often wander north and west of their normal range—so be on the lookout.



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