Large to medium-sized wading bird belonging to the same family as bitterns, egrets, night herons, and boatbills. Herons have sharp bills, broad wings, long legs, slender bodies, and soft plumage. They are found mostly in tropical and subtropical regions, but also in temperate zones, on lakes, fens, and mudflats, where they wade searching for prey. (Genera include Ardea, Butorides, and Nycticorax; family Ardeidae, order Ciconiiformes.)
They capture small animals, such as fish, molluscs, and worms, by spearing them with their long bills. Herons nest in trees or bushes, on ivy-covered rocks, or in reedbeds, making a loose fabric of sticks lined with grass or leaves; they lay greenish or drab-coloured eggs, varying in number from two to seven according to the different species.
The common heron (A. cinerea) nests in Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa in large tree-top colonies. The bird is about 1 m/3 ft long, and has a long neck and legs. The plumage is chiefly grey, but there are black patches on the sides and a black crest. The legs are olive green and the bill yellow, except during the breeding season, when it is pink. Although it is a wading bird, it is rarely seen to swim or walk. It feeds on fish, frogs, and rats. In 1996 there were an estimated 6,600 heron pairs in Britain.
Other heron species include A. alba, the great white heron, which is 1 m/3 ft long, and ranges from central Europe to Africa and Asia; A. occidentalis, the white heron of Florida, an even larger bird; and A. goliath, probably the largest of all species, which has a reddish head, neck, and underface.
The night herons (genus Nycticorax) are remarkable for the long feathers at the back of the head, blackish or white in colour, which are lost for a time after breeding; the species vary greatly in colouring.
Jewett, Sarah Orne: From ‘A White Heron’
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