“Was that a crane, or was that a Heron?” A common question when we see a very large water bird, but chances are when you ask yourself this question, the answer is “it’s a heron.” Only two species of Cranes are common to North America; Sandhill Crane and Whooping Crane.
Six varieties of herons, ranging in size from 46” in length (Great Blue), to just 18” in length (Green) span the North American continent, with the Great Blue Heron being the most common.
Whatever the answer to the question both Cranes and the Great Blue Heron look prehistoric, especially when they take flight. Here are a few facts to help distinguish the differences and similarities.
The tallest bird in North America measuring in at 52” is also one of the rarest. A severely endangered species; the Whopping Crane is predominately found in only two places; the marshes of Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada where it summers and breeds, and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas where it spends its winters. Its endangered status is in part due to hunting or indiscriminate shooting. However; the largest threat to the Whooping and the Sandhill Crane is high-tension power lines, which they encounter during fall and spring migration. With both Crane species reaching cruising speeds of up to 45 mph, these collisions are often fatal.
As far back as 1850 approximately 1,500 of the species had been documented. Over the past century the numbers dipped to a dangerously low range of between 15 and 44. Due to conservation efforts, the number that remains has grown to 220 as of 2005. A significant increase, but still a very low number, justifying it’s “severely” endangered species status.
Watch this small group of Whooping Crane fish along the edge of a marsh. The location is most likely along the Texas Gulf Coast. Its loud shrill call sounds something like a rusty swing.
Less rare, but still uncommon, the Sandhill Crane has a wingspan that can reach up to 7 feet. See this large and amazing bird in flight. The Great Blue Heron (see below), is often mistaken for the Sandhill Crane because of their similar size. However; the Sandhill Crane is mostly white, with brown primaries and tail feathers, and a straight neck. The Great Blue Heron is gray with an “S” curve in the neck.
The fall migration of the Sandhill is something many birders look forward to with anticipation. The distribution of the Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes, Mississippi Sandhill Crane and the Florida Sandhill Crane is vast. These small concentrations stretch from the Western coast of Alaska, North to the Hudson Bay Region and South to Florida. Although this distribution is widespread and spotty, the Sandhill Cranes flock together in various staging areas throughout North America picking up numbers as they collectively make their semi-annual treks across the continent. One major path across the Central Plains has been recorded to have nearly half a million Cranes traveling its course at any given time. The sound produced by these massive birds can be deafening to those in close proximity. Take a listen and multiply it by 500,000.
Great Blue Heron
This is the “large bird” that most people see. It stands 46” high – almost 4 feet, – and has an amazing wing span of 72” – a full 6 feet. Slate gray to blue in color, it has a black streak above the eye that blends in to an ornate black plume on the top/back of its head. This plume is only present during breeding season on both the male and female.
Kayaking on Lake Tanneycomo in Missouri several summers ago, I saw first-hand the behaviors of this interesting bird. They will wade in the water for extended periods of time, carefully and patiently tracking a fish-soon-to-be-snack. They attack with such skill and rapid fire, and swallow the fish so quickly; it leaves one wondering if they actually caught something. At times, they misjudge the size of their prey and have been known to choke to death after swallowing a fish too big to make it down the S-shaped curve of its neck. I’ve often witnessed a lone Great Blue that loves to hang out in the shallows of a pond at a nearby golf course. He also patiently waits for and tracks his prey, and I’m sure he has been mistaken for a statue on more than one occasion. I can count on him to be there every time I pass by in the summer.
The Great Blue Herons on Lake Tanneycomo were numerous, and watching them take flight and land in their enormous nests was a sight to behold. The vision was definitely reminiscent of Pterodactyl images simulated in dinosaur documentaries. The call of the Great Blue Heron sounds something like a chimpanzee. They are found all throughout the United States, Mexico and most of Canada.
Little Blue Heron
This little guy likes to hang out in freshwater, and like his Great Blue relative and Cranes, he a slow, intense and methodical hunter, tracking prey with laser concentration and precision. Although not from the same families the Heron (Family Ardeidae) and Crane (Family Gruidae,) both possess an intensity and deliberateness in their fishing skills that is mesmerizing. Take a look at this Little Blue Heron fishing, and you’ll see what I mean. His actions are not unlike that of the Great White Heron video below.
The Little Blue Heron’s pure white offspring are a stark contrast in color, and often mistaken for the Snowy Egret. In fact, juvenile Little Blues are often seen feeding with Snowy Egrets and catch a great deal more fish than if they were to forage alone. Scientists believe that the white juvenile color may be an adaptation resultant of this uncommon relationship.
He might be little, but the call of the Little Blue Heron is not. Little Blue is found primarily in the Southeastern US and along the coast lines of Mexico.
The Green Heron is not very heron-like in shape and appearance with the exception of the eyes and beak. It is, however; very similar in the way it moves and hunts. Unlike most birds, the Green Heron is largely nocturnal, preferring to forage alone, as they are very intolerant of other birds – even their own kind! A recluse for sure, they prefer to hang out in well covered areas during the day, but will venture out for food when raising young. Smart fishers, they are known to drop food or insects in shallow water to attract, and catch bigger fish. As such they are known as one of the few tool-using birds. Unlike other birds (except the hummingbird) the Green Heron is able to hover for a short time enabling them to better catch prey. Green Herons like frogs and grasshoppers, but are also known to take in an occasional snake or rodent. Green Heron fishing.
The Green Heron is monogamous, but only for one season. Talk about intolerance! To attract a mate the male puffs up his head and neck feathers and then proceeds to noisily fly around a female showing off his “stuff”. Once a match is made, the male sets to work on the nest, which is always located over water, whether in the plants of a marsh or in a tree. Nest heights range between three and 20 meters off the ground. Keeping to their preference for solitude, Green Herons do not nest in colonies like other herons. The gestation cycle for Green Herons is amazingly fast. A typical clutch (laying of eggs) size numbers between two and six pale green eggs, with the incubation period lasting a mere three weeks! Both male and female incubate the eggs, and take care of the feeding after the chicks are hatched. Only 16 days after birth, chicks to begin fledging (leave the nest) and try their wings. A full month is standard before they fully fledge and begin to care for themselves. Green Herons breed across most of the US with the exception of the West Central/Mountain states. Listen to the call of the Green Heron.
Black-Crowned Night Heron
Juvenile birds of this species have brown wings with white spots and a primarily white breast and head with brown streaks. They don’t acquire their full adult plumage until their third year. Black-crowned Night-Heron feather display.This squatty little bird with a short neck and legs stands a mere 25” tall, but boasts a wide wingspan of almost twice his body length at 44”! He can however stretch his squatty neck to greater heights, which proves useful for fishing as well as scoping for predators.
The Black-Crowned Night-Heron is aptly named, as it is the black sheep of the Heron family. It will attack the nest and steal eggs from other herons. To defend their nests and protect their young all other species of Herons will attack the Black-Crowned on sight, which most likely contributes to his nocturnal behavior. Clever like the Green Heron, the Black-Crowned vibrates its beak in the water to lure curious prey, which come to investigate the commotion. A brutal fellow, the Black-Crowned violently shakes its prey to death prior to eating, and then swallows its capture head first! The Black-Crowned is found all throughout the US, Canada and Mexico. Take a listen to the Black-Crowned Night-Heron call.
Yellow-Crowned Night Heron
This interesting creature looks as though he belongs with the Muppet gang, especially when fluffing his feathers so as to appear larger to a predator as seen here; Yellow-crowned Night-Heron feather display. Its long yellowish legs extend well beyond its tail in flight; a feature which makes it easily distinguishable from other Herons when observing from below. With a beautiful slate colored body, long black bill and red eyes, the Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron is a striking bird. Named for its yellow plume of feathers on its head, they only sport this coiffed cap during the breeding season – male and female alike.
Like other Herons the Yellow-Crowned is slow and methodical with its hunting, which is does mostly along rivers and streams, and will nest in the trees and brush along these same bodies of water. Similar in size to close relative the Black-Crowned, it stands 24” tall, and has a 42” wingspan. This bird is found throughout the Southeast and Midwest.
The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron call is very similar to that of the Little Blue Heron. Take a listen.
*All bird audio and video courtesy of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
**All bird images courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library.
Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Sixth Edition. Roger Tory Peterson
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Fifth Edition.