Wild Thing: Looking Grumpy
Black-crowned night-herons are sociable, despite their ornery appearance.
By Eva Frederick
Hunched, brooding figures skulk in trees and scrub near wetlands during the day, waiting for night to fall. These grumpy-looking birds are black-crowned night-herons, a common sight in marshes, swamps and ponds on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
Black-crowned night-herons’ hunchbacked appearance is a far cry from that of their elegant long-necked relatives. These chunky waterbirds have the habit of tucking their necks into their bodies, giving them the appearance of having no neck at all.
As their name suggests, night-herons are nocturnal, and generally spend their days huddled on tree limbs or hidden in foliage. At dusk, they fly to nearby wetlands and begin foraging for food.
Night-herons are deadly hunters, preying on fish, frogs, mice and just about any other small animal they can get their bills on. Unlike some other species of heron, they do not use their hefty beaks to stab prey. Instead, they grab fish, insects or other food items between their jaws, shake them, then swallow them whole and often alive.
When baby night-herons hatch from their pale green eggs, they are scruffy and yellow-eyed with greenish skin and stubby feathers, their colors reminiscent of an oil slick — blue and green and yellow and purple and gray. As the youngsters mature, their feathers first become dusty brown, then the sleek gray and white of adults; their eyes turn from yellow to brilliant red.
On the back of their heads, two to three long feathers make a long white ponytail-like plume that extends down their backs.
Night-herons’ yellow-green legs turn pink when they reach breeding age, which is usually 2 to 3 years old. Courting male night-herons impress females with a display of bowing, bobbing and waving those ponytail plumes.
Night-herons are sociable birds, and often nest in groups that include different species of birds such as egrets and ibises. Mother night-herons don’t discriminate between their own babies and those of other birds, and will nurture and feed any baby bird that is placed in their nest. They are highly protective of their young, and have been known to vomit and defecate on people who come too close.
Birders often jokingly call night-herons “grumpy old men” for their short-necked, ornery appearance, and some night-herons live up to the name — these birds can live longer than 21 years!
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