HERONS AND BITTERNS – Ardeidae

HERONS AND BITTERNS

HERONS AND BITTERNS FACTS

Herons, egrets, and bitterns are medium to very large wading birds, birds with long legs who walk through shallow water searching for prey. They are 9.7 to 58.5 inches (25 to 150 centimeters) long from beak to tail, and they weigh between 0.16 and 9.9 pounds (73 grams and 4.5 kilograms). They have long necks, which they fold over their backs when flying, and long legs and toes. With the exception of the boat-billed heron, which has a wide, flat bill, these birds all have long, sharply-pointed bills, large eyes, and broad wings.

The birds in the heron, egret, and bittern family have feathers that are combinations of the colors black, gray, brown, and white. They have a comblike claw on each of their middle toes that they use for smoothing their feathers. Another way they keep their feathers in good shape is by putting powder on them. It comes from feathers called powder downs. These are special feathers that turn to powder instead of dropping off. At breeding time, both males and females grow long, showy feathers on their heads, necks, and backs.

GEOGRAPHIC RANGE

Herons, egrets, and bitterns live on all continents except Antarctica. They also live on islands in all oceans. Many of these birds prefer warm climates, and they live in the tropics year round. The birds that nest in the cooler areas of the world usually migrate in spring and fall.

HERONS AND BITTERNS HABITAT

Herons, egrets, and bitterns usually live in wetlands, including swamps, tidal areas (where saltwater and fresh water mix), marshes, damp meadows, and forest streams. Most of them feed in water, but they like to have trees nearby for roosting at night and for their nests. Some also live in grasslands, farm fields, or rice fields, and a few kinds are able to live in drier areas.

HERONS AND BITTERNS DIET

Herons, egrets, and bitterns are carnivorous, eating only meat, and most of them eat fish. They wade in shallow water looking for prey, animals they eat, and with a rapid thrust of their long, sharp bills they capture fish. They also eat crabs and other crustaceans, frogs, insects, snails, small mammals, small birds, and reptiles.

BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION

Many kinds of herons and egrets gather in huge flocks to feed together and roost at night. They also nest in groups called colonies that can number from a few birds to thousands. Bitterns are more likely to keep to themselves. The females usually build nests with sticks brought by their mates. Except for bitterns, both parents take turns sitting on the eggs. Newly hatched young are helpless, but they grow quickly on the food their parents bring.

HERONS, EGRETS, BITTERNS, AND PEOPLE

Large colonies of herons and egrets attract the attention of people. Herons, egrets and bitterns were kept them as pets, and killed for food or their feathers for hat decoration. Herons often take advantage of habitats made by people, such as farm ponds, rice fields, reservoirs, city parks, and roadside ditches.

CONSERVATION STATUS

Some herons, egrets, and bitterns are not threatened, but others are close to extinction, dying out. Many of the birds are in trouble because of wetland pollution and destruction. In some parts of the world they are still hunted for their body parts, or they are killed when they feed at fish farms. Conservation groups are working to save protected areas for these birds and help them make a comeback.