The City Naturalist

City Naturalist

Black Crowned Night Heron

Article and Photos by Leslie Day

BLACK CROWNED NIGHT HERON: Nycticorax nycticorax (Latin from Greek: nykitikorax, night raven).

DESCRIPTION: The Black crowned night heron is a small long-legged wader, standing 23-28 inches tall with a wingspan of 45 inches. The night heron has a heavy, chunky body, short thick neck, short legs and heavy, sharply pointed, black bill. The adult's head has a black cap with a fallen crest of 2-3 narrow white plumes at the back of their head. Their eyes are ruby red. They have a black back and white belly. Their wings and tail are grey and their legs and feet are usually yellow but turn quite red in the early part of the nesting season. The young or immature black crowned night herons are brown and streaked with white.

At night these herons are often seen in the sky flying over boats at the 79th Street Boat Basin. They appear as dark silhouettes, as they fly with steady beats of their broad wings. This photograph of a black crowned night heron was taken on the western shore of the row boat lake in Central Park in late spring.

VOICE: another name for the night heron is the "quark bird" because the sound it utters as it flies through the night is "quark".

FEEDING: The black crowned night heron is an expert at "still fishing". It stands motionless for long periods in shallow water, on pilings at high tide and on floating docks watching and waiting for its prey. With a quick thrust of its bill into the water it catches small fish. The heron can swim well searching for food. It can also eat algae, but it mostly eats shad, herring, suckers, pickerel, and eels. In freshwater ponds it eats frogs, tadpoles, salamanders, garter snakes, toads, crayfish, mussels, dragonflies and their nymphs. The black crowned night heron heron is extremely adaptable; it eats whatever is most plentiful at the time and place.

NESTING: The black crowned night heron nests in small to large colonies in almost any habitat: groves of pines, oaks, sassafras, maple and alders near coastal marshes; cattail marshes on prairies; clumps of tall grass on dry ground; tall trees of city parks. Central Park has many of these adaptable little herons. They nest together with other heron species. The male selects the nest site and gathers the materials of coarse twigs, reeds or branches for the nest foundation. The finer materials for the top and lining are also gathered by the male. The nest is built by the female.

EGGS: 3-5 pale blue-green eggs. In Florida the nesting season is November through April. Both male and female sit on eggs from 24-26 days. The young first fly about 42 days after hatching, when they pursue adults to beg for food.

FLIGHT: Up to 35 m.p.h.

RANGE: Widespread from Canada through South America.

HISTORY: Legend holds that a tenth century Japanese emperor become enchanted with the black crowned night heron and elevated it to the fifth court rank or "go-i". This bird is still known in Japan as the "go-i" heron.

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