Eerie. Sinister. Unnaturally still. These are apt descriptions for those wondrous waders, the night herons. These stout birds of the genera Nycticorax and Gorsachius (Family Ardeidae) resemble feathered footballs tastefully appointed in gray and white. However, their hunched posture and nocturnal habits lend night herons a baleful mien.
Adding to the night heron’s ominous aspect is its particular method of hunting. These omnivores enjoy a wide variety of foods; fish, amphibians, reptiles, crustaceans, insects, other birds, plant matter, and even small mammals are all fair game.They stalk aquatic prey by standing motionless for hours on end in or by shallow water, then striking with dagger sharp bills. This tactic, called still fishing, must be effective, as these adaptable birds can be found in nearly any terrain as long as water is nearby. The Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) also employs another hunting technique called bill vibrating, whereby it opens and closes its bill rapidly in water and preys upon any small creature attracted to the disturbance.
Black-crowned Night Heron by Mike Bergin
The Black-crowned Night Heron is the poster child for the night heron family. Nycticorax nycticorax literally means “night raven, night raven” in the original Greek. The first part of this bird’s scientific name is fitting, as the black-crown is, in the way of night-herons, nocturnal, hunting at dusk and dawn while idling during daytime hours. The second half of the name does not denote any relation to the family Corvidae; this bird is a long-legged wader through and through. The similarity between a night heron and a raven is purely vocal. The black-crown is known, though not loved, for its noisy, croaking cry, depicted as “Quark!” or “Quawk!” This guttural call at dusk can be somewhat distressing. The black-crowned night-heron is fairly common throughout the United States. Though it is a solitary hunter, this bird is rather gregarious and breeds in colonies. The black-crown’s range far exceeds North America, extending from Europe, where it is known simply as the Night Heron, to Asia and down through India to Africa.
The Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax violaceus) shares the Americas with the black-crown. It also shares a piercing crimson glare and striated brown juvenile plumage, the latter a feature of all night heron species. The yellow-crown is fairly common in appropriate habitat throughout its range, as is the Nankeen (or Rufous) Night Heron, (Nycticorax caledonicus) of Australasia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron by Mike Bergin
Other night heron species aren’t as robust. The Malayan (or Malaysian) Night Heron (Gorsachius melanolophus) of southern and eastern Asia, known also as the Tiger Bittern, is widespread throughout its range, but still considered threatened. Africa’s White-backed Night Heron (Nycticorax leuconotus) isn’t that easy to spot either. But these birds have nothing on the poor, endangered Japanese Night Heron (Gorsachius goisagi) whose current population has dwindled down to about 1,000 in only a few decades. Even worse is the plight of the White-eared Night Heron (Gorsachius magnificus) a Chinese bird listed on the IUCN Red List as one of the world’s most endangered species. The white-ear even made the list of the Fifty Rarest Birds of the World, a dubious honor indeed.
Yet, any extant Night Heron can deem itself fortunate in comparison to the former Nycticorax natives of Ascension Island, Bermuda, and the Mascarene Islands of Mauritius, Reunion, and Rodrigues. Each of these five locations once hosted its own endemic night heron, now extinct.