8 Types of Herons in Alberta

With vast wetlands, lakes, and rivers, Alberta provides prime habitat for a diversity of heron species. These elegant, long-legged wading birds stalk patiently through shallow waters before spearing fish and other prey with their sharp bills. Eight heron species commonly breed or migrate through Alberta. From the widespread Great Blue, one of the largest herons in North America, to the diminutive Green Heron, barely longer than your forearm, Alberta hosts an array of these agile, aquatic hunters. Read on to learn about the identification, behavior, habitat, and status of the magnificent herons found in the province of Alberta.

Heron Species Size Habitat
Great Blue Heron 100 cm tall, 200 cm wingspan Wetlands, lakes, rivers, coasts
Green Heron 46 cm long, 61 cm wingspan Marshes, ponds, shorelines
Black-crowned Night-Heron 61 cm tall, 106 cm wingspan Marshes, swamps, ponds, lakes
Cattle Egret 46 cm long, 91 cm wingspan Grasslands, agricultural areas, wet meadows, water edges
Snowy Egret 60 cm tall, 106 cm wingspan Marshes, wet meadows, ponds, lakes, shorelines
Little Blue Heron 51 cm long, 91 cm wingspan Swamps, ponds, marshes, shorelines
Tricolored Heron 56 cm tall, 88 cm wingspan Marshes, swamps, ponds, lake edges
Great Egret Over 100 cm tall, 150 cm wingspan Inland wetlands, coastal areas

1. Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is the most widespread and largest heron in Alberta. It stands around 1 meter tall and has a wingspan of up to 2 meters. Great Blue Herons have slate-gray bodies and plumes, black stripes down their head, and bright yellow bills.

Great Blue Herons nest in colonies called heronries, often high up in trees near water. They build large nests out of sticks, lined with moss, grass, or pine needles. Females lay 3-6 pale blue eggs each year. Both parents incubate the eggs for around 28 days before they hatch. Chicks fledge at around 2 months old but continue to return to the nest to be fed by their parents for some time after.

These herons stalk shallow water to hunt for fish, their primary prey. They stand motionless waiting to spear fish with their sharp bills. Great Blues also eat amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, and insects. They often hunt at night or early morning when prey is most active.

Great Blue Herons live year-round across Canada but may migrate south during the coldest winter months. They can be seen around wetlands, lakes, rivers, and coastlines in Alberta. Their conservation status is of Least Concern.

2. Green Heron

The Green Heron (Butorides virescens) is a small heron species found during spring and summer in Alberta. Adults reach lengths of around 46 cm and have wingspans of around 61 cm. They get their name from their greenish-gray backs and wings contrasted with rich chestnut body and wing plumes. Their necks are reddish-brown and they have black caps with white streaks.

Green Herons nest solitarily in wetland areas, making platform nests low down in shrubs or trees near water. Females lay 3-5 eggs which are incubated for around 20 days before hatching. Both parents feed the chicks that fledge in around 18 days.

These herons hunt small fish, amphibians, and insects, often by dropping bait to lure prey within striking distance. They frequent swamps, marshes, ponds, and shorelines. Green Herons fly south to Central America for the winter. Their conservation status is of Least Concern.

3. Black-crowned Night-Heron

The Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) is a medium-sized heron found in summer in Alberta. Adults are around 61 cm tall with wingspans of 106 cm. Their appearance is striking with black crowns and backs contrasted with pale gray wings and whitish underparts. They have bright red eyes and short black bills.

These herons nest colonially in trees, laying 3-5 eggs. At night the adults leave the nests to forage alone along shorelines and in shallows for fish, crustaceans, insects, amphibians, and reptiles. They are most active at dusk, dawn, and at night.

Black-crowned Night-herons inhabit marshes, swamps, ponds and lakes. They roost during the day in trees near water. Most migrate south out of Canada to overwinter. Their conservation status is of Least Concern.

4. Cattle Egret

The Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) is a small white heron introduced to North America from Africa. It reaches lengths of 46 cm with wingspans around 91 cm. Cattle Egrets have all white plumage in the breeding season but their bills and legs are yellow-orange. In nonbreeding seasons their bills and legs turn reddish and some of their plumage gets an orange tint.

These herons got their name because they are often seen following and feeding near livestock. They eat insects stirred up by the movement of cattle or farm machinery. They also take small vertebrates, especially rodents. Cattle Egrets breed in small colonies in tree canopies, making platform nests.

This species inhabits agricultural areas, grasslands, wet meadows, and edges of waterbodies from spring to fall in Alberta. They migrate each winter to the southern U.S. and Mexico. Cattle Egrets are considered an invasive species but their conservation status is of Least Concern.

5. Snowy Egret

The Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) is a elegant white heron that stands around 60 cm tall with wingspans around 106 cm. They have all white plumage, black legs and feet, and bright yellow feet during breeding season. Their bills are also black and their faces have pale greenish-yellow skin between the eye and bill.

Breeding adults have long filmy plumes flowing from their heads, necks, and backs. Nesting occurs in colonies near water, with females laying 3-5 eggs. This species forages in shallow water and wetlands for small fish, crustaceans, insects, amphibians, and reptiles.

The Snowy Egret inhabits marshes, wet meadows, ponds, lakes, and shorelines. Some may overwinter in the southern U.S. but most migrate to Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Their conservation status is of Least Concern.

6. Little Blue Heron

The Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) is a sleek, small heron reaching lengths of 51 cm with wingspans around 91 cm. Adults have slate-gray bodies, wings, necks, and heads. Their bills are black and legs yellowish to green. During breeding season adults develop purplish-maroon heads, necks, and shoulders.

Little Blue Herons nest colonially near water, building platforms of sticks in trees or shrubs. Females lay 3-5 pale blue eggs. This species feeds mainly on small fish, crustaceans, frogs, and other small aquatic animals. They forage while standing still or walking slowly through shallow wetlands.

These herons inhabit swamps, ponds, marshes, and shorelines. Their range extends from southern Canada through Central America. Most migrate to the Gulf Coast and farther south for winter. Their conservation status is of Least Concern.

7. Tricolored Heron

The Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor) is a sleek, medium-sized heron standing around 56 cm tall with a wingspan of 88 cm. As its name suggests, it has a tri-colored pattern of slate-gray, rufous, and white. The head, neck, and central back are dark slate-gray. The shoulders, sides, abdomen, and undersides of wings are rich rufous. The chin, throat, and lower neck are white. The bill is black and legs yellow.

Tricolored Herons breed in colonies of stick nests built around shrubs or trees near water. Females lay 3-5 eggs. These herons stalk and feed on small fish, amphibians, crustaceans, and insects in shallow fresh and saltwater areas.

In Alberta this species frequents marshes, swamps, ponds, and lake edges from spring to fall. They migrate along coastlines to wintering grounds from the southern U.S. to northern South America. Their conservation status is of Least Concern.

8. Great Egret

The Great Egret (Ardea alba) is Alberta’s largest pure white heron standing over 1 meter tall, with a wingspan reaching 1.5 meters. In breeding plumage, it has long ornamental feathers off the back. The bill is thick, long and yellow. The legs and feet are black.

Great Egrets nest in colonies with other wading birds, building platform nests in trees over water. Females lay 3-4 eggs per clutch. These herons hunt in shallow water and wetlands, spearing fish with their bills but also eating frogs, snakes, insects, and small mammals.

This species inhabits inland wetlands and coastal areas. Most migrate from Alberta to overwinter along the southern U.S. coast to South America. Some overwinter in the southernmost U.S. Great Egrets have rebounded from near extinction and their conservation status is now of Least Concern.

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