The black-crowned night-heron is a relatively common, widespread wading bird but often shows up in unexpected places. Knowing how to accurately recognize and identify these birds is a good way for birders to separate black-crowned night-herons from more commonly seen waders.
Both male and female black-crowned night-herons look similar, and their adult plumage is distinctive and easy to recognize. When watching these waders, look for:
- Crown: The crown is plain, bold black, but there is a small white patch surrounding the bill. Depending on the bird's posture, the crown may blend into the black back.
- Bill: The bill is straight, thick and stout. It is fully black on mature birds, and the lores are gray-black so the bill may seem even longer.
- Eye: The black-crowned night-heron has large, bright red eyes with black pupils, giving these birds a stark, vicious glare.
- Throat: The throat is plain, creamy white, and the white extends onto the cheeks and breast. All the underparts are whitish without distinct markings, but the wings often droop low enough to conceal the flanks.
- Plumes: In breeding plumage, adult black-crowned night-herons have a few very thin, long, white plumes extending from the back of the head. While the plumes do stand out against the dark crown and back, they can be difficult to see because they are so thin.
- Back: The back is plain black without any bars, spotting or streaks.
- Wings: The rounded wings are medium gray and lack any other markings.
- Tail: The gray tail is short and stubby, and may not be very visible on a perched bird because the wings cover most of it.
- Legs and Feet: The legs and feet are yellow, and the talons are black. The legs are long, and the feet show partial webbing between long toes, though that can be difficult to see.
- Posture: While these waders do have a long neck when roosting or at rest, they keep their necks compacted and may seem to have no neck at all.
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Identify an Alert Black-Crowned Night-Heron
When actively hunting or foraging, black-crowned night-herons can look significantly different from their typical roosting posture. The key field marks are still visible, however, and birders who recognize how these waders can change shape will be able to more easily identify them.
- Crown: During any behavior, this wader's black crown is easily visible. When the bird's neck is fully extended, the back of the neck is gray, so the crown may seem less prominent.
- Eye: The red eye is also visible, but the apparent color may change from a bright red to darker blood red or blackish-red depending on the light and viewing angle.
- Bill: The stout, black bill is kept poised for action when the bird is hunting, and the thick base can be especially visible. These birds will often crouch holding their bills very close to the water.
- Throat: The pale, plain throat is a good field mark that distinguishes these waders from herons and bitterns that show streaking on the throat. The throat is relatively thick and will seem even thicker after the bird swallows its next meal.
- Plumes: The thin white plumes of the bird's breeding plumage stand out well against its dark crown and back, and can be very mobile in windy areas.
- Back: The black back is a good field mark, but may seem smaller on active birds when it is not closer to the dark crown.
- Tail: The short, gray tail is not easily visible even on active birds because the wings cover much of it, but the blunt, rounded shape is easily recognizable.
- Wings: The plain gray wings have no strong color variations or markings.
- Legs and Feet: The legs and feet are yellow but may range in color from a pale, dirty yellow to a much brighter shade depending on when during the breeding season the bird is seen. If wading in shallow water, the legs may seem shorter than expected.
- Posture: While these birds are most often seen with their necks retracted, they can extend their necks significantly, dramatically changing their overall shape and size.
Photo – Alert Black-Crowned Night-Heron © Paul SteinContinue to 2 of 3 below.
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Juvenile Black-Crowned Night-Heron Identification
Young black-crowned night-herons look dramatically different than their parents, and their camouflaged plumage serves them well as protection in weedy marshes and swamps. To positively identify a juvenile black-crowned night-heron, look for…
- Bill: The bill has the same stout, straight shape as an adult's bill, but is bicolored with more black or smudgy gray-black coloration above and a lighter yellow or yellow-buff coloration below. The lores are yellow, which can make the bill seem shorter, and the entire tip of the bill is black.
- Eye: A young bird's eyes are lighter than they will be when the bird matures, showing more of an orange or light orange-red shade, but the black pupil is the same.
- Upperparts: The bird's neck and back are brown with blurry black and buff streaks to serve as ideal camouflage in marshes and wetlands. As the bird changes posture, the width and clarity of the streaks can change.
- Wings: The brown wings show white teardrop markings that can resemble broken, spotted wing bars. As the birds mature, those spots gradually wear off.
- Tail: Young black-crowned night-herons have the same stubby, rounded tail as adults, but it is brownish rather than gray and may show a white or buffy-white tip.
- Legs and Feet: The legs and feet are paler than adult, breeding plumage birds, and show paler talons. As juveniles age, the legs may take on a reddish or pinkish hue.
Photo – Juvenile Black-Crowned Night-Heron © USFWSContinue to 3 of 3 below.
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Identify a Black-Crowned Night-Heron in Flight
In flight, many of the same field marks are visible to help identify black-crowned night-herons, and dedicated birders will also learn the characteristic shape these birds present while flying to quickly and easily identify them, even at a distance.
- Crown: If the top of the bird's head can be seen, the stark black crown will still be easily visible, but in flight, the breeding plumes are often unable to be seen because of distance or angle.
- Primary Feathers: These waders have broad, rounded wings, and the primary feathers are a medium gray color without strong variations.
- Wingpit: The wingpit is slightly paler than the primary or secondary feathers, but depending on the light level, it may seem uniformly colored with the rest of the bird's wings.
- Bill: The thickness of the bill is still visible in flight, and it may seem even longer because of the bird's overall proportions.
- Underparts: The bird's underparts are pale white or a creamy white color, and may have a buff or yellow wash toward the legs. The neck is held retracted in flight.
- Legs and Feet: The legs and feet show their yellowish color in flight, and stick out longer than the bird's short, blunt tail.
It is easy to learn how to recognize black-crowned night-herons in different postures and plumages, and the faster a birder can accurately identify these common waders, the faster they will be able to tell when they're seeing something completely different.
Photo – Flying Black-Crowned Night-Heron © Jerry Kirkhart