heron [key], common name for members of the family Ardeidae, large wading birds including the bittern and the egret, found in most temperate regions but most numerous in tropical and subtropical areas. Unlike the remotely related cranes and ibises, which fly with their heads extended straight forward, herons fly with their necks folded back on their shoulders. Their plumage is soft and drooping and, especially at breeding time, there may be long, showy plumes on the head, breast, and back. Herons are usually solitary feeders, patiently stalking their prey (small fish and other aquatic animals) in streams and marshes and then stabbing them with their sharp, serrated bills. Most herons roost and nest in large colonies called heronries; others are gregarious only at breeding time; and some are entirely solitary. The nests vary from a sketchy platform of twigs high in a tree to a bulky mass of weeds and rushes built on the ground among the marsh reeds. American herons include the great and little blue herons, the green heron, the yellow-crowned and the black-crowned night herons (the latter known also as night quawk, because of its cry), and the Louisiana heron, called by Audubon “the lady of the waters.” The great white heron of Florida, a little larger (50 in./125 cm long) than the great blue, is a striking bird sometimes confused with the American egret. Other large white herons are common in Africa. The European night heron ranges to India and N Africa. The odd looking shoe-billed heron (or stork, a misnomer) is found along the White Nile and the boat-billed heron in tropical America. Herons are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Ciconiiformes, family Ardeidae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Vertebrate Zoology