“Oh! What a Night, Heron!”

Shorter than his Great-Blue cousin, the Black-Crowned Night Heron is a beauty to behold. Elusive, wading wetlands birds, BC Night Herons are very stocky and thickly built compared to their long-limbed relatives. In fact, they are so short their yellow legs barely reach the end of their tail while in flight. The adults are strikingly beautiful and adorned with sleek gray and black plumage, two or three wispy white head plumes on their flat, wide head, rich scarlet eyes and ebony bills. However, they present a hunched over look rather than the tall, willowy posture of the Great-Blue. Their neck is almost imperceptible, and their wingspan of 41 to 48 inches appears broad and rounded. The youngsters are distinctly different in appearance with mottled brown feathering, yellow-brown bills and orange eyes until maturing into the more vibrant adult. Adults are 25 inches in length and weigh around 28 ounces on the average with males being the larger gender. When the call came in for assistance with a pretty bird that had been standing in the corner of someone’s yard near their fence in Beaufort for over a day, our transport didn’t know for sure what he’d be picking up. On site, he knew it was a heron, but certainly not the more common admit, a Great Blue Heron . . . way too short for that. Upon arriving at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, formal identification was made: Black-Crowned Night Heron. He was easy to handle in his weakened state, and a full examination revealed no broken bones, no respiratory ailments, no predatory injuries such as puncture wounds, no head injury, no toxicity and no frostbite, but he was under-weight and frail. Our theory is, due to the recent cold snap, hunting was difficult, so food was scarce. He was literally starving and became so weak that at the point of landing in the Good Samaritan’s yard, he could no longer muster the strength to fly out. So, there he stood, dying. Many thanks to the residents of the home who cared enough to give us a call, so we could intervene on his behalf. In shelter care he started feeding slowly with assisted nutrition and then he began eating on his own like a champ; all the shrimp and mud minnows he could gobble, and he became a little “piggy” heron! He packed on weight, regained his strength, let us know when he was ready to go, and he is back out there living his Black-Crowned Night Heron life! A success story like this would not be possible without the partnership our shelter enjoys with the compassionate and committed community residents who care so much about our indigenous North Carolina wildlife. Black-Crowned Night Herons are very noisy and social birds that roost and nest in groups over water. Often, these groups include other species of marsh birds such as egrets, ibises and different herons. They are quick to sound the protective, squawking alarm and scatter when danger is perceived. Areas where you might find them will be fresh, salt and brackish wetlands everywhere; estuaries, marshes, streams, lakes and reservoirs. During the day, look up in the trees and you may catch them dozing or trying to conceal themselves with leaves and branches to avoid predators. They will be perched on tree limbs, waiting for their most active time of day; dusk and during the night. BC Night Herons typically forage for food on their own rather than in a group during the evening and late night in the water and occasionally on land. These birds stand extremely still at the water’s edge and wait to catch a meal. They primarily eat small fish, crustaceans, frogs, reptiles, aquatic insects, bats, eggs, small mammals and small birds. A Black-Crowned Night Heron is a smart bird who engages in bait fishing, much like our very intelligent American Crow. They will lure or distract fish by tossing edible or inedible objects that float into the water. Their fast and furious reflexes serve them well when hunting, but their patience is even more admirable. They may also use an aerial technique called “hovering” where they fly over the water and pause in mid-air to capture prey or they can perform “swimming-feeding” and just skim through and under the water snatching food. This migratory bird will breed and spend its summers along the coast in North Carolina and occasionally stay through the winter if it’s a mild one, but if the temperatures drop too low, it’s off to Florida or South America for the BC Night Heron. During breeding season, the male will search for a protected location and start building a 12-18 inch across and 8 to 12-inch-high nest of sticks, twigs and woody vegetation and then begin an elaborate courtship display to entice a female to move in. It is believed the BC Night Heron is monogamous and extends his allegiance to only one woman once paired. The observations of male courtship include crouching with head lowered, raising the white plumes on his head and bill clapping, flapping his wings while singing and dancing or hissing while rocking back and forth from one foot to the other. When the female can’t resist his advances and accepts the overtures, they preen and bill each other, and often the male offers her a twig which cements the deal, as in the spirit of ABC’s “The Bachelor,” ‘will you except this twig?’ Once bonded, the male’s legs turn pinkish-red, and he also becomes aggressively protective of his mate. The female usually lays 3 to 5 eggs and incubation lasts around 22 days. Both male and female tend to the nest and feed the hatchlings. The young, who are fluff-brown down will leave the nest at one month but will not be able to fly. They will be ground bound and move through the undergrowth on foot, as they are taught to hunt and fly by their parents. They will learn to fly at 6 weeks, fully fledge in 6-7 weeks and reach their sexual maturity at 2 to 3 years of age. Black-Crowned Night Herons will often produce two broods per breeding season. The lifespan of a BC Night Heron is between 10 and 15 years, however the oldest on record is a female who reached 15 ½ years. The wildlife rehabilitators at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter are thrilled to have, hopefully, added a few years or more to the longevity of our recent BC Night Heron patient, and the experience of providing him care was educational, as well as, fabulous. Sometimes we get that rare admit that has so much to teach us. “Oh, What A Night, Heron!”

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All