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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Snowy Egret, Egretta thula. Note the chicks in the nest.
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Subclass: Neornithes
Infraclass: Neognathae
Superorder: Neoaves
Order: Ciconiiformes
Family: Ardeidae
Leach, 1820

About 17, see text



The herons are wading birds in the Ardeidae family. There are 64 recognised species in this family. Some are called egrets or bitterns instead of herons. Within the family, all members of the genera Botaurus and Ixobrychus are referred to as bitterns, and - including the Zigzag Heron or Zigzag Bittern - are a monophyletic group within the Ardeidae. However, egrets are not a biologically distinct group from the herons, and tend to be named differently because they are mainly white and/or have decorative plumes. Although egrets have the same build as the larger herons, they tend to be smaller.

The classification of the individual heron/egret species is fraught with difficulty, and there is still no clear consensus about the correct placement of many species into either of the two major genera, Ardea and Egretta. Similarly, the relationship of the genera in the family is not completely resolved. However, one species formerly considered to constitute a separate monotypic family Cochlearidae, the Boat-billed Heron, is now regarded as a member of the Ardeidae.

Although herons resemble birds in some other families, such as the storks, ibises and spoonbills, they differ from these in flying with their necks retracted, not outstretched. They are also one of the bird groups that have powder down.

Some members of this group nest colonially in trees; others, notably the bitterns, use reedbeds.



The neck of this Yellow Bittern is fully retracted.

The herons are medium to large sized birds with long legs and necks. They exhibit very little sexual dimorphism in size. The necks are able to kink in an s-shape, due to the modified shape of the sixth vertebrae. The neck is able to retract and extend, and is retracted during flight, unlike most other long-necked birds. The neck is longer in the day herons than the night herons and bitterns. The legs are long and strong and in almost every species are unfeathered from the lower part of the tibia (the exception is the Zigzag Heron). In flight the legs and feet are held backwards. The feet of herons have long thin toes, with three forward pointing ones and one going backwards.[1]

The bill is generally long and harpoon like. It can vary from extremely fine, as in the Agami Heron to thick as in the Grey heron. The most atypical bill is owned by the Boat-billed Heron, which has a broad thick bill. The bill, as well as other bare parts of the body, is usually yellow, black or brown coloured, although this colour can vary during the breeding season. The feathers of the herons are soft. The plumage of the herons is usually blue, black, brown, grey or white, and can often be strikingly complex. Amongth the day herons there is little sexual dimorphism in plumage (except in the pond-herons); differences between the sexes are the rule for the night herons and smaller bitterns. Many species also have different colour morphs.[1] In the Pacific Reef Heron there are both dark and light colour morphs, and the percentage of each morph varies geographically. White morphs only occur in areas with coral beaches.[2]

Distribution, habitat and movements

Lava Herons are endemic to the Galápagos Islands where they feed on fish and crabs in the intertidal and mangrove areas

The herons are a widespread family with a cosmopolitan distribution. They exist on all continents except Antarctica, and are present in most habitats except the coldest extremes of the Arctic, extremely high mountains and the driest deserts. Almost all species are associated with water, they are essentially non-swimming waterbirds that feed on the margins of lakes, rivers, swamps, ponds and the sea. They are predominately found in lowland areas, although some species live in alpine areas, and the majority of species occur in the tropics.[1]

The herons are a highly mobile family, with most species being at least partially migratory. Some species are partially migratory, for example the Grey Heron, which is mostly sedentary in Britain but mostly migratory in Scandinavia. Birds are particularly inclined to disperse widely after breeding but before the annual migration where the species is colonial, searching out new feeding areas and reducing the pressures on feeding grounds near the colony. The migration typically occurs at night, usually as individuals or in small groups.[1]


The herons and bitterns are carnivorous. The members of this family are mostly associated with wetlands and water, and feed on a variety of live aquatic prey. The diet includes a wide variety of aquatic animals, including fish, reptiles, amphibians, crustaceans, molluscs and aquatic insects. Individual species may be generalists or specialise in certain prey types, like the Yellow-crowned Night Heron, which specialises in crustaceans, particularly crabs.[3] Many species will also opportunistically take larger prey, including birds and bird eggs, and more rarely carrion. Even more rarely there have been reports of herons eating acorns, peas and grains, but most vegetable matter consumed is accidental.[1]

Black Herons hold their wings over their bodies to form an umbrella like canopy to hunt under

The most common hunting technique is for the bird to sit motionless on the edge of or standing in shallow water and wait until prey comes within range. Birds may either do this from an upright posture, giving them a wider field of view for seeing prey, or from a crouched position, which is more cryptic and means the bill is closer to the prey when it is located. Having seen prey the head is moved from side to side, so that the heron can calculate the position of the prey in the water and compensate for refraction, and then the bill is used to spear the prey.[1]

In addition to sitting and waiting, herons may feed more actively. They may walk slowly, at around or less than 60 paces a second, snatching prey when it is observed. Other active feeding behaviours include foot stirring and probing, where the feet are used to flush out hidden prey.[4] The wings may be used to frighten prey (or possibly attract it to shade) or to reduce glare; the most extreme example of this is exhibited by the Black Heron, which forms a full canopy with its wings over its body.[5]

Three species, the Black-headed Heron, Whistling Heron and especially the Cattle Egret are less tied to watery environments and may feed far away from water. Cattle Egrets improve their foraging success by following large grazing animals, catcing insects flushed by their movement. One study found that the success rate of prey capture increased 3.6 times over solitary foraging.[6]


Herons are also known as "shitepokes", or euphemistically as "shikepokes". Webster's Dictionary suggests that herons were given this name because of their habit of defecating when flushed. The terms "shitepoke" or "shikepoke" can be used as insults in a number of situations.[7] For example, the term "shikepoke" appears in the 1931 play Green Grow The Lilacs, and in the 1943 musical play Oklahoma!.

The 1971 Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary describes the use of "shitepoke" for the small green heron of North America (Butorides virescens) as originating in the United States, citing a published example from 1853. The OED also observes that "shiterow" or "shederow" are terms used for herons, and also applied as derogatory terms meaning a "thin weakly person". This name for a heron is found in a list of gamebirds in a royal decree of James VI (1566 -1625) of Scotland. The OED speculates that "shiterow" is a corruption of "shiteheron".[8]

Taxonomy and systematics

Analyses of the skeleton, mainly the skull, suggested that the Ardeidae could be split into a diurnal and a crepuscular/nocturnal group which included the bitterns. From DNA studies and skeletal analyses focusing more on bones of body and limbs, this grouping has been revealed as incorrect[9]. Rather, the similarities in skull morphology reflect convergent evolution to cope with the different challenges of daytime and nighttime feeding. Today, it is believed that three major groups can be distinguished[10], which are (from the most primitive to the most advanced):

  • tiger herons and the boatbill
  • bitterns
  • day-herons and egrets, and night-herons

The night herons could warrant separation as subfamily Nycticoracinae, as it was traditionally done. However, the position of some genera (e.g. Butorides or Syrigma) is unclear at the moment, and molecular studies have until now suffered from a small number of studied taxa. Especially the relationship among the ardeine subfamily is very badly resolved. The arrangement presented here should be considered provisional.

Recent DNA evidence suggests that this family may in fact belong to the Pelecaniformes.[11]

Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Tigrisoma mexicanum
Great Bittern, Botaurus stellaris
Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
Great Egret Ardea alba

Subfamily Tigrisomatinae

Subfamily Botaurinae

Subfamily Ardeinae

  • Genus Zeltornis (fossil)
  • Genus Nycticorax - typical night-herons (2 living species, 4 recently extinct; includes Nyctanassa)
  • Genus Nyctanassa - American night-herons (1 living species, 1 recently extinct)
  • Genus Gorsachius - Asian and African night-herons (4 species)
  • Genus Butorides - green-backed herons (3 species; sometimes included in Ardea)
  • Genus Agamia - Agami Heron
  • Genus Pilherodius - Capped Heron
  • Genus Ardeola pond-herons (6 species)
  • Genus Bubulcus - cattle-egrets (1-2 species, sometimes included in Ardea)
  • Genus Proardea (fossil)
  • Genus Ardea - typical herons (11-17 species)
  • Genus Syrigma - Whistling Heron
  • Genus Egretta - typical egrets (7-13 species)
  • Genus undetermined
    • Easter Island Heron, Ardeidae gen. et sp. indet. (prehistoric)

Fossil herons of unresolved affiliations:

  • Calcardea (Paleocene)
  • Xenerodiops (Early Oligocene of Fayyum, Egypt)
  • "Anas" basaltica (Late Oligocene of "Warnsdorf", Czechia)
  • Ardeagradis
  • Proardeola - possibly same as Proardea

Other prehistoric and fossil species are included in the respective genus accounts.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Martínez-Vilalta, Albert; Motis, Anna (1992), "Family Ardeidae (Herons)", in del Hoyo, Josep; Elliott, Andrew; Sargatal, Jordi, Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 1, Ostriches to Ducks, Barcelona: Lynx Edicions, pp. 376-403, ISBN 978-84-87334-10-8  
  2. ^ Itoh, Singi (1991). "Geographical Variation of the Plumage Polymorphism in the Eastern Reef Heron (Egretta sacra)". The Condor 93 (2): 383-389. http://elibrary.unm.edu/sora/Condor/files/issues/v093n02/p0383-p0389.pdf.  
  3. ^ Watts, Bryan (1988). "Foraging Implications of Food Usage Patterns in Yellow-Crowned Night-Herons". The Condor 90 (4): 860-865. http://elibrary.unm.edu/sora/Condor/files/issues/v090n04/p0860-p0865.pdf.  
  4. ^ Meyerriecks, Andrew (1966). "Additional Observations on "Foot-Stirring" Feeding Behavior in Herons". The Auk 83 (3): 471-472. http://elibrary.unm.edu/sora/Auk/v083n03/p0471-p0472.pdf.  
  5. ^ Delacour, J (1946). "Under-Wing Fishing of the Black Heron, Melanophoyx ardesiaca". The Auk 63 (3): 441-442. http://elibrary.unm.edu/sora/Auk/v063n03/p0441-p0442.pdf.  
  6. ^ Dinsmore, James J. (1973). "Foraging Success of Cattle Egrets, Bubulcus ibis". American Midland Naturalist 89 (1): 242–246. doi:10.2307/2424157.  
  7. ^ "Shitepoke" and "Shikepoke" entries, Webster's Third International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, Philip Babcock Gove, Editor in Chief, G. and C. Mirriam Company, 1971 ISBN 0877790019
  8. ^ "Shitepoke" and "Shiterow" entries, Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1971, Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number 76-188038
  9. ^ McCracken & Sheldon (1998)
  10. ^ Sheldon et al. (1995, 2000)
  11. ^ A Phylogenomic Study of Birds Reveals Their Evolutionary History. Shannon J. Hackett, et al. Science 320, 1763 (2008).


  • McCracken, Kevin G. & Sheldon, Frederick H. (1998): Molecular and osteological heron phylogenies: sources of incongruence. Auk 115: 127–141. DjVu fulltext PDF fulltext
  • Sheldon, Frederick H.; McCracken, Kevin G. & Stuebing, Keeley D. (1995): Phylogenetic relationships of the zigzag heron (Zebrilus undulatus) and white-crested bittern (Tigriornis leucolophus) estimated by DNA-DNA hybridization. Auk 112(3): 672-679. DjVu fulltext PDF fulltext
  • Sheldon, Frederick H.; Jones, Clare E. & McCracken, Kevin G. (2000): Relative Patterns and Rates of Evolution in Heron Nuclear and Mitochondrial DNA. Mol. Biol. Evol. 17(3): 437–450. PDF fulltext

External links

Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010
(Redirected to The Heron article)

From Wikisource

Fables by Jean de La Fontaine, translated by Elizur Wright
The Heron
Book VII, Fable VI. Source: Gutenberg Project.
One day,─no matter when or where,─
A long-legg'd heron chanced to fare
By a certain river's brink,
With his long, sharp beak
Helved on his slender neck;
"Twas a fish-spear, you might think.
The water was clear and still,
The carp and the pike there at will
Pursued their silent fun,
Turning up, ever and anon,
A golden side to the sun.
With ease might the heron have made
Great profits in his fishing trade.
So near came the scaly fry,
They might be caught by the passer-by.
But he thought he better might
Wait for a better appetite─
For he lived by rule, and could not eat,
Except at his hours, the best of meat.
Anon his appetite return'd once more;
So, approaching again the shore,
He saw some tench taking their leaps,
Now and then, from their lowest deeps.
With as dainty a taste as Horace's rat,
He turn'd away from such food as that.
"What, tench for a heron! poh!
I scorn the thought, and let them go."
The tench refused, there came a gudgeon;
"For all that," said the bird, "I budge on.
I'll ne'er open my beak, if the gods please,
For such mean little fishes as these."
He did it for less;
For it came to pass,
That not another fish could he see;
And, at last, so hungry was he,
That he thought it of some avail
To find on the bank a single snail.
Such is the sure result
Of being too difficult.
Would you be strong and great,
Learn to accommodate.
Get what you can, and trust for the rest;
The whole is oft lost by seeking the best.
Above all things beware of disdain;
Where, at most, you have little to gain.
The people are many that make
Every day this sad mistake.
'Tis not for the herons I put this case,
Ye featherless people, of human race.
─List to another tale as true,
And you'll hear the lesson brought home to you.

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010
(Redirected to Database error article)

From LoveToKnow 1911

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Bible wiki

Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From BibleWiki

(Lev 11:19; Deut 14:18), ranked among the unclean birds. The Hebrew name is 'anaphah, and indicates that the bird so named is remarkable for its angry disposition. "The herons are wading-birds, peculiarly irritable, remarkable for their voracity, frequenting marshes and oozy rivers, and spread over the regions of the East." The Ardea russeta, or little golden egret, is the commonest species in Asia.

This article needs to be merged with HERON (Jewish Encyclopedia).
This entry includes text from Easton's Bible Dictionary, 1897.

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