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Herons and Egrets
Family Ardeidae


great egretHerons and Egrets are supreme hunters, with long strong beaks on the end of a long neck which uncoils to deliver a quick, powerful lunge.

Their long legs give them added height advantage and a long stride. In addition, these wily hunters have a wide repertoire of hunting techniques.

Some lie in wait for unsuspecting prey to come within reach. They wait on vegetation over water, others stand on their long legs in shallow water. Others are more proactive and may stir up the muddy bottom to scare up some prey which they then pick off.
Mangrove and wetland wildlife at
Sungei Buloh Nature Park
Main features: Medium to large; neck and legs long (shorter in bitterns), bill long pointed stout; fly with necks pulled back onto the shoulders, legs stretched out beyond their short tails, broad wings flapping slowly. Genders look alike.

Similar birds: Cranes: fly with their necks extended.

Classification: Family Ardeidae. World 61-65 species, Singapore 17 species. Order Ciconiiformes, which includes cranes, ibis, storks.

The family Ardeidae may be divided into 4 major branches or subfamilies (Payne & Risley, 1976):

The night-herons (subfamily Nycticoracinae);

The day or typical herons and egrets (subfamily Aradeinae);

The tiger-herons (subfamily Tigrisomatinae, found only in tropical Americas); and

The bitterns (subfamily Botaurinae).

Smallest: Little bittern (Ixobrychus minutus): 27-36cm, 46-86g.

Largest: Goliath Heron (Ardea goliath): 1.4-1.5m.
black heron fishing
Photo from
David Attenborough
The Black Heron of Africa and Madagascar has a unique method of hunting called canopy feeding. They stand in shallow waters and spread their wings to form an umbrella over their heads. Small fish and other prey are often lured to take shelter in the shadow and come within reach of the birds.

In Japan, Little Herons (Butorides striatus) living in a public park flick bits of bread left by humans onto the water to lure fish to the surface. They do the same trick with a bit of feather. Other herons elsewhere, so likewise.

The Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), has black legs but bright yellow feet which it uses to good advantage. It stands on one leg and shakes its bright yellow foot above the water surface to attract prey.

little egret fishingHerons and Egrets hunt in shallow waters which gives them the advantage over their prey.

heron's footOther heron specialities: All members of the family Ardeidae have specialised feathers called powder down. These are never moulted but fray from the tip and grow continuously from the base. While pigeons have similar feathers all over their bodies, in herons, these are concentrated in patches. The fine powder that is generated as these feathers fray is used by the bird to remove slime and oil from their feathers.

Another heron feature is their 4 long toes, 3 pointing toes forwards, and one backwards. The claw on the middle of the forward toes has a rough, comb-like inner margin that the heron uses to preen its soft feathers.

Breeding: Many herons have spectacular courtship displays. Some develop delicate lacy breeding feathers on the head, back or breast, which are used during the courtship displays. During breeding season, they also develop brighter colours on their legs, bill, eyes and lores (the patch of bare skin between the bill and their eyes). The brighter colours remain for a while after the pair-bond is established and eggs are laid.
egret displaying breeding plumes
Photo from
James Hancock

Most herons form monogamous pairs and both parents look after the young. Most typical herons nest in colonies (called heronries), while bitterns and night herons are secretive and nest alone.

Status and threats: The word egret comes from the word aigrette which refers to the lacy breeding plumes of 6 species of white heron. These plumes were in high demand to decorate women's hats during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The demand was so huge that the feathers from four birds would be worth twice the same weight of gold. In the 1900s, the plumes sold at more than $1,000/kg.

Because the plumes were at their best at the peak of breeding season, the birds were shot as they were raising their young, leaving the helpless young to die. The slaughter of these birds eventually led to a public outcry which resulted in the ban on the use of these feathers in hats. Eventually, official protection prevented their extinction. The word egret has since been used to name other all-white herons, even those which don't have these fancy breeding plumes.

LINKS
  • CREAGRUS @Monterey Bay by Don Roberson: key features of the main bird families of the world with facts and lots of wonderful photos.
  • Virtual Zoo's page on Herons: short fact sheet.
REFERENCES
  To buy these references & others, visit
Nature's Niche
  • James Hancock, "Herons and Egrets of the World: A photographic journey", Academic Press, 1999 (p. 28: identification, distribution, status, feeding, breeding, and photos of all life stages)
  • Lim Kim Seng and Dana Gardner, "Birds: An Illustrated Field Guide to the Birds of Singapore", Sun Tree Publishing Ltd., 1997 (p.83: identification, status in Singapore, distribution, diagram, number of species)
  • G W H Davison and Chew Yen Fook, "A Photographic Guide to Birds of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore", New Holland Publishers Ltd., 1995 (p. 15: identification, status in Singapore, distribution, photo).
  • Clive Briffett, "A Guide to the Common Birds of Singapore", BP Science Centre,1992 (p. 43: habit, habitat)
  • Dr. Harold G Cogger (et. al), "Encyclopedia of Animals"; Herons and their Allies by K W Lowe, 1993 (p. 287-290: about herons, egrets, bitterns: hunting style and bill shape and other general facts)
  • David Attenborough, "The Life of Birds", Princeton University Press, 1998 (p. 53: powder feathers, p. 123: hunting methods).
 
By Ria Tan, 2001