Plants and Animals

Black-crowned night-heron

Twilight is a great time to spot these beautiful anglers in the lowlands of the Mississippi River.

As the snowy egret floated to the ground, its delicate plumage swirling in the wind, I almost shouted, “Stop—it’s not safe!” A moment later, even before the snowy’s golden feet found purchase at the edge of the waterfall, it was blindsided by the black-crowned night-heron, proprietor of the little stream. I watched as the brutish heron with the body of a high-school wrestler gave the oblivious intruder a lesson about boundaries.

The black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) arrives in Missouri each year as the last days of spring give way to summer. Easily distinguishable from other herons, it has a stocky body, short neck, thick black bill and bright red eye. As its name implies, the black-crowned night heron has a black cap that extends down its back between gray wings that flank its underparts of creamy white. Finally, to solidify its status as a “handsome bird” the black-crowned night-heron sports a double plume that emerges from its nape and hangs freely like a ponytail.

Although the black-crowned night-heron is considered the most widespread heron in the world, it is not commonly spotted in Missouri by casual observation. Bird watchers look for this species at the margins of the day, near sloughs and wetlands where tree cover is nearby. I saw my first black-crowned night-heron several years ago as it fed along a tree-lined slough near the Mississippi River at Columbia Bottom Conservation Area in St. Louis County. It was early evening, almost twilight, the perfect time to see my first “night-heron.”

Last summer, a black-crowned night-heron frequently visited St. Louis’ Forest Park and staked its claim to a tiny waterfall in a creek. I photographed it several times as it stood like a grizzly bear in the turbulent water, waiting to grab an errant sunfish. I was fascinated by the patience of this individual as it stared intently at a single point in the water for up to 20 minutes. In my experience, black-crowned night-herons do not abide other herons in their vicinity when feeding, and my photographic subject at Forest Park was no exception.

If an unsuspecting snowy egret, or any other heron, even entered the airspace above the waterfall, my stout friend launched a relentless attack. Fortunately, ducks and other non-heron species were given a free pass through the area without intimidation.

Black-crowned night-herons are mainly found in the lowlands along the Mississippi River and while considered uncommon in Missouri, local concentrations are common. They often build their nests, platforms of sticks, in the same tree as other heron species, apparently taking leave from the territorial feeding behavior I’ve observed. Juveniles leave the nest in late summer and while quite similar to juvenile yellow-crowned night-herons, the two are distinguishable with a little practice. If you would like to see a black-crowned night-heron for yourself, I recommend a summer visit to any of MDC’s conservation areas along the Mississippi River. To find conservation areas, visit mdc.mo.gov/node/8911.

—Story and photo by Danny Brown

We help people discover nature through our online field guide. Visit mdc.mo.gov/node/73 to learn more about Missouri’s plants and animals.