Green Heron

Butorides virescens

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Photo of a green heron
Most people see green herons as they forage in marshes and on the edges of tree-lined streams, ponds, and lakes.
Other Common Name
Green-Backed Heron
Family

Ardeidae (herons) in the order Pelecaniformes

Description

A stocky crow-sized heron. On adults, the wings and back are green mixed with blue-gray. The upper breast, sides of neck, and head are chestnut with a dark blue-green crown that can be raised to a crest when alarmed. In poor lighting, green herons may simply look dark. Young are more heavily streaked on neck and chest and duller and grayer on back. On being disturbed and when flying, its loud sharp call note resembles the harsh sound made by closing rusty scissors — skowp!

Similar species: Least bitterns have paler necks, buff and chestnut patches on their inner wings, and dark on the outer half of their wings. They are about two-thirds the size of the green heron, which lacks the light wing patches. American bitterns are larger, buff and brown, and lack a dark cap. Black-crowned and yellow-crowned night-herons are larger, grayer, and have thicker, shorter bills than green herons.

Key Identifiers

 

  • Crow-sized, stocky
  • Neck usually pulled in against body, appearing short-necked
  • Long bill
  • Chestnut-brown neck and breast
  • Dark green-blue-gray wings, back, and cap
  • Legs yellow
Size

Length: 18 inches.

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Photo of a green heron
Green Heron
A green heron hunches motionless at the water’s edge, waiting patiently for a fish to swim within striking distance.

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Photo of a green heron head and bill
Green Heron Bill
The green heron's bill is beautifully adapted for its fish-catching hunting style.

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Photo of a green heron with crown feathers outstretched
Green Heron
A green heron's dark blue-green crown feathers can be raised to a crest when alarmed.

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Photo of a green heron flapping its wings
Green Heron
When flushed, a green heron can seem awkward as it hurriedly flops away, but when it’s hunting, a green heron is smooth and stealthy.

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Photo of a green heron with neck outstretched toward the water surface
Green Heron
The green heron can extend its neck a surprisingly long way as it lunges to capture its prey.

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Photo of a green heron catching a green sunfish
Green Heron Catching Green Sunfish
A green heron captures its prey with a quick lunge, grasping it in its bill.

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Photo of a green heron swallowing a green sunfish headfirst
Green Heron Swallowing a Green Sunfish
Green herons, like other herons, typically flip around their captured fish so that they can swallow it headfirst.

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Photo of a juvenile green heron standing at the water's edge
Green Heron Juvenile
Young green herons are more heavily streaked on neck and chest and duller and grayer on back.

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Photo of a juvenile green heron grasping dried plant stalks
Green Heron Juvenile
Young green herons have streaked breasts, dark caps, and dark wings (no buffy wing patches).

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Photo of a green heron
Green Heron
The green heron used to be called the green-backed heron, when it, the striated heron (in the Old World tropics and South America), and the Galapagos (or lava) heron were all considered the same species.

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Photo of a green heron nest and nestling
Green Heron Nest and Nestling
Green heron nests are built in forks of trees or shrubs and are well-hidden by surrounding vegetation, and often overhang water.

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Photo of three green heron nestlings
Green Heron Nestlings
Green heron clutches comprise 3–5 eggs, which are incubated for 19–21 days.

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Photo of two young green herons perched on a small branch
Green Heron Young
If you find a heron colony, keep your distance: alarmed herons may abandon their nests or destroy them in their flight; young may fall into the water and drown; fleeing birds may collide with branches or each other and break their wings.

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Photo of a juvenile green heron
Green Heron Juvenile
Green herons sometimes drop small objects, such as twigs, feathers, or insects, onto the water surface, which lures curious fish within snatching distance.

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Photo of a green heron walking on water lilies
Green Heron and Water Lilies
Green herons and other marsh birds can use water lilies as platforms from which to hunt for fish.
Habitat and conservation

Most people see green herons as they forage in marshes and on the edges of tree-lined streams, ponds, and lakes. They can be difficult to see, as they move slowly or stand still amid vegetation on banks. When flushed, a green heron can seem awkward as it hurriedly flops away, but when it’s hunting, a green heron is smooth and stealthy, then lightning-fast and astonishingly accurate as it jabs for prey.

Foods

Green herons typically stand motionless at the edge of a pond, moving slowly and stalking small fish, frogs, and aquatic insects. They watch and wait for their prey to venture close enough to snatch. A heron captures its prey with a quick lunge, grasping it in its bill and swallowing it headfirst. The green heron can extend its neck a surprisingly long way as it lunges to capture its prey. This species is one of the few birds known to use tools: green herons sometimes drop small objects, such as twigs, feathers, or insects, onto the water surface, which lures curious fish within snatching distance.

Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Common summer resident; accidental winter visitor. In the past, this species has been called the green-backed heron, when it was considered a single species along with the striated heron (which lives in the Old World tropics and South America) and the Galapagos (or lava) heron. Currently, the three are viewed as separate species. Ornithologists carefully apply common names so that they match up with scientific nomenclature. When their understanding of species’ relationships causes them to alter the scientific names, the common names change accordingly.

Life cycle

Present in Missouri from mid-April through late October. Numbers are greatest from mid-May through the end of August. Unlike many other herons, green herons often nest solitarily, though they sometimes join colonies with other herons. Nests are built in forks of trees or shrubs and are well-hidden by surrounding vegetation, and often overhang water. Built of sticks, the nest is about a foot wide and quite shallow. Clutches comprise 3–5 eggs, which are incubated for 19–21 days. After hatching, the young remain in the nest for 16–17 days. Green herons can live to be at least 7 years old.

Human connections

If you ever see a green heron stalking intently for prey along a stream or pond bank, you will probably get the impression that it is an intelligent bird. Many scientists would agree with you, considering the fact that this species is known to use tools — use one object to act upon a second object — to capture prey.

Two old-time Ozark names for this species were "fly-up-the-creek" and "shikepoke."

Ecosystem connections

Scientists who study animal behavior ponder many questions when an animal is found to use tools, among them: Is the behavior innate, passed on through genes? Or is it learned by watching others of the species performing the behavior? Does each individual put his or her own creative twist on the behavior? Or can it be some combination of these?