8 Types of Herons in Tennessee

Tennessee provides excellent habitat for a diversity of heron species across its wetlands, rivers, lakes, and coastlines. These elegant wading birds range from the huge Great Blue Heron to the diminutive Green Heron but all share adaptions for a fish-catching lifestyle. Patience and stealth allow herons to thrive as hunters. The dance of life continues as parent herons tend their nests each breeding season, caring for eggs and chicks while their partners hunt. Whether waking at dawn or dusk, herons form an integral part of Tennessee’s wetland ecosystems. Read on to learn more about the biology and habits of Tennessee’s eight most common heron species.

Heron Size Habitat
Great Blue Heron 3-4 ft tall, 6 ft wingspan Marshes, ponds, rivers, lakes, coasts
Great Egret 3 ft tall, 5 ft wingspan Marshes, ponds, tidal flats, shorelines
Little Blue Heron 22 in tall, 3 ft wingspan Marshes, ponds, rivers, flooded fields
Green Heron 18 in tall, 25 in wingspan Ponds, streams, ditches, shorelines
Black-crowned Night-Heron 20-24 in tall Wetlands, shorelines
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron 25 in tall, 3 ft wingspan Swamps, marshes, wooded wetlands
Green-backed Heron 15 in tall Ponds, lakes, rivers, wetlands
Tricolored Heron 25 in tall, 3 ft wingspan Coastal and freshwater wetlands

1. Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is the largest and most widespread heron in Tennessee. These stately birds stand around 4 feet tall with a wingspan of up to 6 feet. They have blue-gray plumage with a white head and neck. Great blues have a thick dagger-like bill that they use to spear fish, their primary food source.

Great Blue Herons nest in colonies called heronries, usually high up in trees located near water. They build large stick nests and lay 3-6 pale blue eggs each year. During breeding season, they grow long plumes on their head, chest, and back. Great blues are patient hunters and can stand completely still for long periods waiting to ambush prey. They stalk shallow water and strike quickly when fish get within range. Great blues eat mostly fish but also consume amphibians, reptiles, insects, rodents, and small birds.

These herons live near marshes, ponds, rivers, lakes, and coastal areas throughout Tennessee. They are most active during dawn and dusk hours but can hunt any time of day. Great blues sometimes follow plows to catch displaced prey. Their loud croaking call is often heard before the bird is seen. While not considered threatened, great blue heron numbers have declined in some regions due to habitat loss. However, they remain common across Tennessee.

2. Great Egret

With their bright white plumage, Great Egrets (Ardea alba) are a stunning sight as they wade gracefully through shallow wetlands. These slender herons stand up to 3 feet tall and have a wingspan approaching 5 feet. Their yellow bill is long and pointed for spearing fish. In breeding season, great egrets grow showy plumes on their back, chest, and head. These were highly sought after in the past by hunters for decorative feathers.

Great egrets breed in colonies with other wading birds and build platform nests in trees or shrubs. Females lay 3-4 eggs each year. While hunting, they move slowly and patiently, watching for fish swimming by. Great egrets use their yellow feet to stir up the water, startling prey to catch. They also consume insects, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals.

These herons frequent marshes, ponds, tidal flats, and shorelines in Tennessee. They often stand still and wait to ambush prey but also actively pursue fish and other animals. Outside of breeding season, great egrets are highly social and feed in groups. Their loud croaking calls are often heard ringing out near nesting colonies. Great egrets are thriving today after recovering from major hunting pressure in the past.

3. Little Blue Heron

The Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) is a small, dark slate-gray heron that inhabits wetlands throughout Tennessee. As the name suggests, these herons have blue-gray plumage in adulthood but juveniles are completely white. Adults have greenish legs, dark bills, and can reach lengths of 22 inches with wingspans around 3 feet.

Little blue herons nest in colonies with other wading birds, building stick platforms high up in trees located in or near swamps. Females lay 3-5 pale blue eggs each year. They forage while wading slowly through shallow wetlands using their bills to stab small fish, frogs, newts, and insects. Little blues frequent marshes, ponds, rivers, and flooded fields looking for food and may also pick shrimp and crabs out of tidal flats.

These diminutive herons are graceful and nimble hunters. They quickly dart their bills into the water to capture prey. During breeding season, little blues grow decorative plumes on their head, neck, and back. They gather in flocks outside of breeding season, sometimes numbering in the hundreds of birds. While still common, habitat loss has caused some decline in population numbers.

4. Green Heron

Green Herons (Butorides virescens) are small, stocky herons with vibrant green and chestnut-colored plumage. They reach lengths of around 18 inches with a wingspan of 25 inches. These herons have shaggy crests on the top and back of their heads. Green herons are well-adapted to living near human settlements and can be found near ponds, streams, drainage ditches and shorelines in urban areas across Tennessee.

As their name suggests, green herons blend in well with vegetation. They often perch motionless on branches, tree stumps, or rocks waiting to ambush prey. When hunting, they stand still and watch for passing fish and amphibians before quickly snapping them up with their bills. Besides aquatic animals, they also consume insects, rodents, and other small animals.

Green herons build twig nests lined with plant matter, typically over water or very close to shorelines. Females lay between 3-5 pale blue eggs. Unlike some herons, they usually nest as solitary pairs instead of in large colonies. The distinctive call of these herons is a loud skeow note, which may signal alarm or keep pairs in contact. Green herons are common statewide but populations are declining in some areas.

5. Black-crowned Night-Heron

As their name indicates, black-crowned night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) are nocturnal and crepuscular birds that hunt primarily at night or during twilight hours. These stocky herons reach 20-24 inches in length and feature distinctive black crowns with white cheeks and gray-black plumage. Red eyes and short black bills help them hunt in dim light.

Black-crowned night-herons nest in protected swamps and thickets near water. They make twig platform nests often overhanging water. Females lay 3-5 pale blue or green eggs. They build nests in colonies, sometimes near other wading bird species. These herons leave colonies at dusk to forage in wetlands and shorelines for fish, crabs, crayfish, insects, rodents, and other prey.

Despite being active at night, black-crowned night-herons may be seen roosting or nesting during daylight hours. However, they are most active from dusk to dawn. At night, they move slowly through shallow water watching for food using their sensitive eyes. Their loud quock call regularly rings out near nesting sites. While still common, their numbers have declined from habitat loss.

6. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

The yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) shares the same nocturnal hunting habits as the black-crowned night heron. In fact, these two species often nest in close proximity. Yellow-crowns have gray and black plumage with a distinctive black and white facial pattern. Their legs are yellow and they have large red eyes. Breeding birds also have long white head plumes.

These herons reach lengths of around 25 inches and have wingspans near 3 feet. They construct stick nests in trees, often over waterways. Females lay 3-5 eggs that hatch in around 3 weeks. Yellow-crowns leave the nest at dusk to forage in wetlands and shorelines. They take prey by ambush or active stalking depending on conditions, consuming anything from crayfish to small rodents.

Yellow-crowned night-herons inhabit swamps, marshes, and wooded areas near water statewide. They are locally common in suitable habitat but may be tough to spot due to their nocturnal tendencies. These herons are mostly active from dusk to dawn but may be seen roosting or nesting during the day. Their populations are thought to be declining.

7. Green-backed Heron

The green-backed heron (Butorides striata), also known as a striated heron, is a small wading bird found near ponds, lakes, rivers, and wetlands in western Tennessee. Adults are about 15 inches tall and have olive-green upperparts with chestnut head and neck colors. These herons get their name from the distinctive greenish back feathers.

Green-backed herons hunt by standing motionless along shorelines or perched on branches before ambushing prey. They eat mostly small fish, frogs, crustaceans, and aquatic insects speared with their thin pointed bills. They often forage near dusk or dawn but can hunt throughout the day and night.

These herons build small platform nests in thickets, low trees, or on the ground concealed by vegetation. Females lay between 2-4 pale blue eggs. While green-backed herons are sociable in winter, they nest as solitary breeding pairs spread out over breeding grounds rather than in dense colonies. They have a sharp skeow call. While still locally common, populations seem to be declining in Tennessee.

8. Tricolored Heron

Tricolored herons (Egretta tricolor) are sleek, medium-sized herons decked out in shades of blue, lavender, and white. They reach lengths of around 25 inches with wingspans approaching 3 feet. These colorful herons get their name from the striking contrast of their slate blue head and neck, violet body, and white belly. Long white plumes extend from their head during breeding season.

Tricolors frequent coastal and freshwater wetlands across western Tennessee hunting for small fish, amphibians, crustaceans, and insects. They often forage in shallow waters by shuffling their yellow feet to stir up prey. Tricolored herons nest colonially with other wading birds in trees or shrubs, constructing stick platform nests. Females lay between 3-4 pale blue eggs each year.

These herons are locally common in suitable wetland habitat within their limited range in Tennessee. However, populations have declined significantly in recent decades primarily due to drainage and degradation of coastal wetlands. Habitat conservation will be important for this species’ future.


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