Utah’s wetlands harbor an impressive diversity of heron species. From the mammoth great blue heron stalking fish in marshes, to the diminutive green heron hunting frogs in cattails, Utah provides essential habitat for these elegant wading birds. Come explore 8 of the most frequently observed heron species across the state. Discover their identifying features, breeding behaviors, habitat preferences, foraging strategies, and conservation status. Whether glimpsed stealthily hunting at dusk or colonially nesting in treetop rookeries, herons reveal the richness of Utah’s treasured wetland ecosystems.
|Great Blue Heron||Large – around 4 ft tall||Marshes, ponds, lakes, rivers, shorelines|
|Green Heron||Small – around 18 in tall||Marshes, swamps, ponds, streams|
|Black-crowned Night-Heron||Medium – around 25 in tall||Marshes, swamps, ponds, rivers, lakes|
|Yellow-crowned Night-Heron||Medium – around 24 in tall||Marshes, swamps, mangroves, shorelines|
|Cattle Egret||Small – around 22 in tall||Wetlands, agricultural fields|
|Snowy Egret||Medium – around 24 in tall||Marshes, ponds, lakes, rivers, estuaries|
|Little Blue Heron||Small – around 22 in tall||Marshes, swamps, ponds, streams|
|Reddish Egret||Medium – around 30 in tall||Coastal marshes, tidal flats, ponds, lakes|
Table of Contents
1. Great Blue Heron
The great blue heron (Ardea herodias) is the most widespread and frequently observed heron in Utah. With an average height of around 4 feet, the great blue heron is the largest heron in North America. These birds can be identified by their overall gray-blue plumage, long legs, long neck, and thick dagger-like bill.
Great blue herons breed in colonies called heronries, often high up in trees over or near water. They build bulky stick nests and lay 3-6 eggs per clutch. While foraging, great blue herons walk slowly through wetlands or along shorelines, standing motionless for long periods as they scan for prey. Their diet consists primarily of small fish, but they also regularly eat amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, and insects.
Great blue herons can be found year-round in Utah near marshes, ponds, lakes, rivers, and shorelines. Their population is stable across North America, though some localized declines have occurred mainly due to habitat loss. Great blue herons are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Major threats include disturbance and destruction of nesting and foraging sites.
2. Green Heron
The green heron (Butorides virescens) is a small, stocky heron that inhabits wetlands across Utah. It measures around 18 inches in height with a wingspan of about 25 inches. As its name suggests, green herons have mostly greenish upperparts, though their neck is reddish-brown and they have a black cap with a small white patch at the forehead.
Green herons are found in sheltered wetlands with abundant vegetation, including marshes, swamps, ponds, and slow-moving streams. They forage while standing motionless on shore or perched on branches, stalking small fish, frogs, insects, and other prey. To capture food, they may probe underwater, grab prey while flying over the water, or abruptly strike from their perch.
Male and female green herons work together to build a nest of sticks, often low in shrubs or other semi-aquatic vegetation. The female typically lays 3-5 eggs. Green herons breed across Utah between April and July. Though widespread, green heron populations in North America have declined moderately in recent decades, mainly due to wetland habitat loss and degradation.
3. Black-crowned Night-Heron
The black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) is a medium-sized heron that inhabits wetlands and waterways across Utah. Adults have gray-black upperparts, a black cap and back, and white underparts. They have red eyes and short black bills. In flight, the black-crowned night-heron displays white wing patches.
As the name suggests, these herons are most active at night or at dusk and dawn. They use a variety of aquatic habitats including marshes, swamps, ponds, rivers, and lakes. Black-crowned night-herons feed mostly on insects, small fish, crustaceans, amphibians, and reptiles. They catch prey by standing motionless and ambushing or by probing in vegetation.
Breeding colonies are usually found in trees or dense shrubbery near water. Nests are made of sticks and twigs, and 3-5 eggs are laid per clutch. These herons breed in Utah between April and August. Though still common, their numbers have declined across parts of North America due to habitat loss and degradation.
4. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
The yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) is a moderately sized heron that gets its name from the white or pale yellow plumes on its head. It has bluish-gray upperparts, a black face mask, and a thick neck with a gray collar. Yellow-crowned night-herons have sturdy bills that are black with a pale yellow base.
These herons inhabit freshwater and brackish wetlands across Utah, including marshes, swamps, mangroves, and shorelines. They mostly forage at night, eating insects, spiders, crustaceans, fish, frogs, reptiles, and small mammals. Yellow-crowned night-herons stealthily stalk prey or stand motionless before striking.
Yellow-crowned night-herons nest colonially in trees and shrubs, often joining mixed colonies with other herons. Females lay 3-5 eggs and both parents help incubate them. These night-herons breed in Utah from April to August. Their populations saw significant declines in the 20th century due to hunting and wetland drainage but have rebounded more recently.
5. Cattle Egret
The cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) is a small white heron that can be found across Utah, often near grazing livestock. It reaches about 22 inches in height with a 32-inch wingspan and has all-white plumage in the breeding season. Cattle egrets have yellow bills, grayish-yellow legs, and black feet.
This species lives up to its name and is well-known for its association with domestic cows and other livestock. The animals flush insects and other prey as they graze, allowing the egrets to easily pick them off. Cattle egrets also forage in wetlands and agricultural fields. They mostly eat insects but also prey on fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, and birds.
Cattle egrets breed in colonies of nests built high up in trees near water. Pairs produce clutches of 3-5 eggs. This species breeds in Utah between March and August. Cattle egrets are native to parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa but were introduced to North America in the late 1800s. Their numbers grew exponentially and now these herons are common across Utah.
6. Snowy Egret
The snowy egret (Egretta thula) is a elegant white heron adorned with lacy plumes during breeding season. It averages about 24 inches in height with a wingspan of 41 inches. Snowy egrets have thin black bills, black legs with yellow feet, and bright yellow lores at the base of their bill.
These herons inhabit marshes, ponds, lakes, rivers, estuaries, and wetlands across Utah. They stalk slowly through shallow water to hunt small fish, frogs, crustaceans, and insects. Snowy egrets sometimes use their bright yellow feet to stir up prey.
Snowy egrets nest colonially with other wading birds such as herons, egrets, and ibises, typically in trees or shrubs over water. Males gather sticks and females build the nests, where they lay clutches of 3-5 eggs. Snowy egrets breed in Utah between April and August. Their plume hunting in the late 1800s decimated their numbers, but they have since rebounded.
7. Little Blue Heron
The little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) is a small, dark slate-gray heron that inhabits wetland areas across Utah. Adults have purplish-maroon heads and necks with a pale blue-gray body. Juveniles are completely white. These herons reach about 22 inches tall with a wingspan of 32 inches.
Little blue herons forage patiently in shallow waters. They eat mostly small fish, but also shrimp, crayfish, tadpoles, frogs, and insects. They capture prey by standing still and striking with precision. Little blue herons breed in colonies, often with other wading birds, and prefer to nest in low trees or shrubs above water.
In Utah, little blue herons can be found April through September nesting and foraging in wetland habitats such as marshes, swamps, ponds, and streams. They are most common in the Great Salt Lake region. Their numbers declined in the 20th century but have rebounded more recently.
8. Reddish Egret
The reddish egret (Egretta rufescens) is a medium-sized heron with dark reddish-pink plumage during breeding season. It reaches about 30 inches in height with a wingspan of around 50 inches. Reddish egrets have two color morphs—a dark morph with a dusky gray body and pink head, and a more common white morph with a pink head, neck, and belly.
This species inhabits shallow coastal habitats in Utah such as marshes, tidal flats, ponds, and lakes. Reddish egrets forage by running and stirring up prey or standing still and spearing fish, amphibians, and crustaceans. They nest colonially on offshore islands, sometimes with other herons and egrets. Females lay 2-5 eggs per clutch.
Reddish egrets are rare summer residents in Utah, found April through September, mostly along the southeastern shores of the Great Salt Lake. Their North American populations sharply declined in the late 1800s due to hunting but have rebounded more recently. They remain threatened by habitat loss.
In summary, Utah provides essential habitat for eight heron species: great blue, green, black-crowned night, yellow-crowned night, cattle, snowy, little blue, and reddish egrets. These wading birds all rely on wetlands and waterways to forage and nest. While population declines occurred in the past, most of Utah’s herons remain common due to conservation efforts like wetland protection. Continued preservation of their sensitive habitats will be key to ensuring Utah’s herons thrive for generations to come.