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Black-crowned Night Heron

Nycticorax nycticorax

The black-crowned night heron is a small, stocky wading bird with a black
The black-crowned night heron is a small, stocky wading bird with a black "cap" on its head. (Jason Weckstein/Flickr)

The black-crowned night heron is a small, stocky wading bird with a black “cap” on its head. It lives year-round in marshes and wetlands throughout the Chesapeake Bay region.


  • Small, stocky body
  • Usually hunches its neck into its body
  • White head with a glossy, black cap
  • Glossy, greenish-black back
  • Gray wings, rump and tail
  • White or light gray underparts
  • Thick, black bill
  • Red eyes
  • Yellowish-orange legs and feet
  • Males have two long, white plumes on the back of their head during breeding season
  • Juveniles are mostly brown with buff and white streaks on the head, chest, back and wings
  • Grows 23-28 inches tall


  • Lives in wetlands, including marshes, swamps, and the edges of lakes, streams and rivers


  • Found year-round throughout the Chesapeake Bay region


  • Eats mostly small fish, amphibians, crustaceans and aquatic insects
  • Silently stalks its prey in shallow waters, then plunges into the water and grasps its prey in its bill
  • Feeds throughout the night to avoid competition with other herons


  • Holds its bill straight ahead and its legs straight back when flying
  • Look for stocky body and pale gray underparts in flight


  • Makes a flat-sounding quok or quark, most often while flying or on a perch
Black-crowned Night Heron courtesy of Pamela C. Rasmussen, Avian Vocalizations Center

Reproduction and Life Cycle:

  • Nests and breeds in colonies with other herons. The Bay’s largest breeding colony is on Fishermans Island at the mouth of the Bay. Other colonies are located near Baltimore Harbor, Mobjack Bay in Virginia, and on islands near Tangier and Pocomoke sounds.
  • May begin breeding as early as February. New breeders continue to arrive at the colonies through the end of April.
  • Males perform several breeding displays to attract a mate
  • Builds a platform nest of sticks in a tree. One tree can have more than a dozen nests in it.
  • Females lay 3-5 eggs from mid-March to late April. Most eggs hatch between late April and late May.
  • The young fledge after about six weeks
  • Most herons leave the breeding colony between mid-August and October

Other Facts:

  • If disturbed, young black-crowned night herons may regurgitate their food onto the intruder.

Sources and Additional Information:

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