All Herons In Illinois (ID, Photos, When To Spot)

Illinois has been home to ten of the 17 species of herons that live in North America on a regular basis. There are two more that are uncommon or mistakes. This guide will help you identify and learn more about these long-legged birds.

Herons, which prefer to feed on salty seafood, freshwater, or may even peer into your own pond for a quick snack.

Herons, which can be found in saltwater, freshwater, and even peering into your backyard pond for a quick snack, are water-loving birds.

However, many of your fish herons are protected, so a net is your best option if you’re having trouble catching them.

Herons are often found nesting in large numbers known as heronries, although they prefer to hunt independently by remaining entirely still and allowing the prey to come close.

A collection of herons is known by a number of names, including “rookery,” “battery,” “hedge,” “siege,” and even the term “scattering” for herons.

You should learn more about the ducks, swans, and pelicans you may observe in Illinois if you enjoy observing waterbirds.

12 Species Of Heron In Illinois

1. Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron is a common sight in Illinois throughout the year, although their numbers rise from April through October. Summer checklists submitted by birdwatchers for the state list them at 22% while winter checklists list them at 6%.

The biggest heron native to North America, Great Blue Herons are huge, majestic birds.

From the front of their eyes to the back of their heads, they have a white face with a black crest or plume. Yellow-orangish is the color of their bills.

They have grayish-blue bodies with long gray legs and a long gray neck with black and white streaking in the front.

  • Ardea herodias
  • Length: 46 – 52 in (117 – 132 cm)
  • Weight: 128 oz (3628 g)
  • Wingspan: 77 – 82 in (196 – 208 cm)

Most US states have Great Blue Herons throughout the year, however they migrate south during breeding season.

In Florida, the Great Blue Heron is split into two morphs: white and Great White Heron.

Great Blue Herons may be found in a variety of wetland habitats. Fresh and saltwater marshes, mangrove swamps, flooded marshes, lake edges, and shorelines are all possible habitats for them.

Fish, frogs, salamanders, shrimp, crabs, dragonflies, grasshoppers, and other aquatic insects make up the majority of Great Blue Herons’ diets.

When wading or standing in water, they capture their prey. They may also dive into the water, jump feet-first from perches, or float on the water’s surface.

Great Blue Heron colonies are situated high in trees near to water, where nests may be seen. Twigs and sticks are used to build the nests, which are lined with softer material.

Since Great Blue Herons reuse their nests, they may gradually enlarge them as time goes on and rebuild them.

The female will lay two to seven eggs after that. For around four weeks, both parents alternate between incubating the eggs.

Fun Fact: With their heads thrown back, Great Blue Herons defend their feeding grounds with spectacular outstretched wings.

2. Great Egret

From mid-March to November, Great Egrets may be seen in Illinois, accounting for 11% of summer checklists. Some may be seen throughout the year in the state, however.

During the breeding season, when males have neon green face skin and long, wispy feathers (aigrettes) extending from their backs to their tails, Great Egrets are at their best. Males exhibit these aigrettes during courting like a peacock does his tail.

They’re often referred to as Great White Herons because of their enormous size. Common egrets are another name for these birds. These huge birds have dagger-like, long, brilliant yellow beaks and black legs and foot. They are white.

The males, females, and juveniles of non-breeding birds are all similar.

  • Ardea alba
  • Length: 37 – 41 in (94 – 104cm)
  • Weight: 59.96 oz (1699 g)
  • Wingspan: 54 – 55 in (137 – 140 cm)

The range of Great Egrets extends across the globe. Those in the southern and coastal US regions stay here all year, whereas those living farther inland move south.

Great Egrets may be found in both freshwater and saltwater marshes, as well as fish ponds, throughout the year.

Fish, frogs, small mammals, crustaceans, and insects make up the majority of Great Egret’s diet. Great Egrets may be seen standing still on the water, waiting and scouting for their prey before striking and spearing it with their long bills.

In colonies, Great Egret nests may be discovered. To protect the nests from predators like raccoons, they are usually placed high up in trees, preferably on islands.

These are constructed from marsh vegetation sticks, twigs, and stems. The females lay six eggs, and both parents incubate them for approximately twenty-five days.

Fun Fact: Because of its lengthy white feathers (aigrettes), the Great Egret was on the verge of extinction. They were primarily utilized to embellish ladies’ hats.

3. Green Heron

In Illinois, where they breed, Green Herons make up 8% of summer checklists. They migrate around October after arriving in April.

The glossy green-black color of the crowns, crests, backs, and wings of green herons attracts attention because they seem bent and gloomy from a distance. You have to get up close to see this.

During the breeding season, their bills change color from two-toned to black. They have a dark top and yellow bottom. Their irises and legs also orange as they age.

Chestnut or maroon is the color of their heads, necks, and breasts. The front length of their neck has a white central stripe running down it. Gray is the color of their bellies.

The caps and crests of juveniles are browner, and they have a darker crest.

  • Butorides virescens
  • Length: 18 – 22 in (46 – 56 cm)
  • Weight: 9.17 oz (260 g)
  • Wingspan: 25 – 26 in (64 – 66 cm)

Before heading south, Green Herons breed mostly in the eastern United States and the Pacific Coast. The rest of the year, though, is spent along the Gulf Coast, in the Caribbean, and in Mexico.

Green Herons may be found in marshes, bogs, lakes, ponds, and other watery areas with thick vegetation. They may stay in dry woods or orchards if there are water sources nearby, despite their preference for coastal and inland wetlands.

Green Herons may be found in wetlands, bogs, lakes, ponds, and other densely vegetated areas. They may stay in dry woods or orchards if there are water sources nearby, despite their preference for coastal and inland wetlands.

Little fish, insects, spiders, crustaceans, snails, amphibians, reptiles, and rodents make up the diet of Green Herons. Instead of wading, they prefer to hunt from shore by perched on sticks over the water.

Green Heron nests are constructed of long, thin twigs placed high in the trees over water, but they may also be found on the ground hidden beneath shrubs.

Females lay two to six eggs every two days. The last egg is laid, and both parents begin incubating it, which takes around twenty days. When they hatch, both parents feed their young.

Fun Facts:  The bait used by green herons to catch their prey, such as bread, feathers, twigs, and leaves, is one of the few bird species that uses tools for foraging.

4. Black-crowned Night-Heron

All year, but particularly from April to October, Black-crowned Night-Herons can be seen in Illinois. Summer checklists contain 4% of these occurrences.

The typical description of the heron family does not apply to Black-crowned Night Herons, or simply Night Herons. It has a shorter beak, neck, and legs than other geese.

The black crowns of adult Black-crowned Night-herons rise from a white line above their black beaks.

Their lores (in front of the eye, towards the beak) are green-blue, and their eyes are red. Underneath, they’re white, but on the back, they’re black. They have yellow legs and feet.

The black head and tail become a glossy blue-green color during the breeding season, with two or three white feathers appearing on the crown. The legs and feet turn red or pink, as well as the lores turning black.

The overall color of juveniles is a dull grayish-brown with streaks and spots.

  • Nycticorax nycticorax
  • Length: 25 – 28 in (64 – 71 cm)
  • Weight: 38.8 oz (1100 g)
  • Wingspan: 44 – 45 in (112 – 114 cm)

The world range of Black-crowned Night-herons is considerable. Before moving south, they breed in the United States and Canada. Others may be found on the beaches year-round.

Wetland environments such as shallow freshwater or brackish rivers are home to Black-crowned Night-herons. Artificial habitats such as reservoirs, canals, and fish ponds are also utilized for them.

Black-crowned Night-herons are night-feeding birds that eat everything from crayfish to fish to even turtles or worms.

Males build Nests of Black-crowned Night-herons in bushes or trees in preparation for selecting their partners.

After that, the female will lay up to seven eggs every two days. For approximately twenty-four days, both parents begin to incubate the eggs after they are deposited. For roughly three weeks, the parents will look after their infants.

Fun Fact: For more than a century, the National Zoo in Washington, DC has hosted a colony of Black-crowned Night-herons during the summer.

5. Little Blue Heron

From mid-March to October, Little Blue Herons may be seen in Illinois during the summer.

The Little Blue Heron is a little bigger than you think. With long, stretched bodies, they are medium to big in size. They have dangling feathers over the nape of their heads and necks, which are a purplish color.

During the breeding season, their eyes become gray-green, which are pale yellow. The pale blue or grayish bills have black tips and are two-toned. Slate-blue is the color of their skin. They have black to gray-green legs that are long.

Before becoming a blend of dark gray, blue, and white, juvenile Little Blue Herons are totally white throughout their first year.

  • Egretta caerulea
  • Length: 24 – 29 in (61 – 74 cm)
  • Weight: 16.22 oz (460 g)
  • Wingspan: 40 – 41 in (102 – 104 cm)

Before heading south, Little Blue Herons breed in the eastern United States, while those in the Gulf Coast and Mexico stay here all year.

Little Blue Herons may be seen around water, in marshes, ponds, streams, lagoons, tidal flats, canals, ditches, fish hatcheries, and flooded fields.

In comparison to other herons, Little Blue Herons forage in a more elegant manner. They simply stand and wait in shallow water for their prey instead of dashing about across the water.

Fish, frogs, snakes, turtles, spiders, crustaceans, mice, and insects are among the foods of Little Blue Herons. Adults prefer to go it by themself, while juveniles prefer to remain with mixed groups.

Little Blue Heron nests are typically built with sticks and may be found in groups with other herons. Up to six eggs are laid by the female. The incubation period is between twenty-four and twenty-six days, depending on who is caring for the eggs.

Fun Fact: Juvenile Little Blue Herons’ presence among Snowy Egrets allows them to capture more fish and gain additional protection from predators because of their white coloring.

6. Snowy Egret

From April through November, snowy egrets may be found in Illinois, although they are most typically seen in August and account for 1% of checklists at this time.

Little all-white herons known as snowy egrets. They have long, black bills, long, black legs, and bright yellow feet. Their irises are yellow. They have skin around their eyes.

Long, lacy feathers on the head, neck, and back of males during the breeding season. Throughout courting, their lores or facial skin turn reddish-pink, and their toes become orange-red.

Surprisingly, during aggressive encounters, these sections of their bodies become bright red.

Adults and juveniles are comparable, save for the lack of head plumes. Their lores and legs are more greenish-yellow, and their bills and legs are also lighter in color.

  • Egretta thula
  • Length: 22 – 27 in (56 -69 cm)
  • Weight: 16.75 oz (475 g)
  • Wingspan: 39.4 in (100 cm)

Except for the Gulf Coast and southwest coasts, snowy egrets migrate across most US states. Throughout Central and South America, they stay throughout the year.

Marshes, riverbanks, lakesides, pools, salt marshes, and estuaries are all common wetland habitats for Snowy Egrets. They prefer marshland with protective trees and shrubs for nesting.

Fish, crustaceans, snails, frogs, and crayfish are all hunted by snowy egrets in shallow water. They may rest immobile, awaiting prey to approach them, or they may stir the water in order for their prey to surface and make it simpler for them to capture.

Males select the nests of snowy egrets. They choose a spot and display themselves in their full glory to attract mates. Males continue to offer sticks, sedges, or reeds while the female creates the nest when they couple up.

Nests are most often found in trees or on the ground, disguised as shrubs. Both parents incubate their eggs in turns after the female lays two to six eggs. The average incubation period is twenty-four days.

Fun Fact: Because of their lovely white head feathers, which were a perfect ornament or accessory for women’s hats, snowy egrets were almost hunted to extinction.

7. Least Bittern

From April through October, Least Bitterns may be seen in Illinois.

In the Americas, Least Bitterns are the smallest herons, and they’re virtually impossible to locate in the reeds.

Their yellow beak has a black cap and a black upper, and they are brown and white in color. They grip the reeds with their long toes and claws.

Females and juveniles have lighter backs and crowns than males, but they are otherwise similar.

  • Ixobrychus exilis
  • Length: 11 – 14 in (28 – 36 cm)
  • Weight: 3 oz (85 g)
  • Wingspan: 16 – 18 in (41 – 46 cm)

The Bitterns’ typical range is Europe and Africa, although they may also be found in North America on occasion.

In thick freshwater and brackish marshlands with plenty of tall cattails and reeds, you may find Least Bitterns. When they perch on reeds, look for them.

They’ll immediately stiffen up, raise their bills to the sky, and sway in unison with the reeds when they sense danger.

Little fish, frogs, tadpoles, salamanders, slugs, dragonflies, aquatic bugs, and occasionally mice are eaten by Least Bitterns. These animals set up shop on the reeds, doing acrobatic twists and turns to get to their prey on the water’s surface.

The female of Least Bitterns creates well-concealed platforms out of cattails and marsh vegetation for her nests. Both parents incubate her eggs for around twenty days after she lays seven eggs. They then regurgitate food to feed newly hatched chicks.

Fun Fact: Long necks are seen in least Bitterns, who generally stay bent.

8. American Bittern

From March through November, Illinois is home to American Bitterns, who may be seen from April through May and again around October.

In the spring of the American Bittern, you may hear strange watery boom calls long before you encounter them if you’re lucky. Here are a few more examples….

The Heron family includes American Bitterns, which are robust, medium-sized birds.

Because of their brown striped and mottled patterning, as well as their capacity to remain motionless amid the reeds with their head tilted upward, they resemble the reeds they hide in.

They have small legs and yellow eyes that turn orange during courtship.

  • Botaurus lentiginosus
  • Length: 23 in (58 cm)
  • Weight: 25.6 oz (726 g)
  • Wingspan: 42 – 50 in (107 – 127 cm)

Before heading to the Gulf Coast and Mexico, American Bitterns breed in Canada and northern US states.

Shallow freshwater marshes and wetlands with tall reeds are nearly always home to American Bitterns.

To locate them, focus your attention on the edges of lakes and ponds amid the rough vegetation.

Fish, crustaceans, insects, amphibians, and tiny creatures make up the American Bitterns’ diet. They quietly forage among the reeds, remaining motionless and silent as they patiently wait for their prey to approach. When they do, they move quickly to capture them in their bills.

In the water, among tangled rushes, you may find nests of American Bitterns. Females pick the nest location and construct it using available reeds, sedges, cattails, and other plants.

American Bitterns’ nests may be found among thick vegetation on the water’s edge. Females pick a location for the nest, which they create themselves with available reeds, sedges, cattails, and other plants.

They lay around seven eggs, which take around twenty-six days to hatch. The females feed the chicks directly into their beaks when they are born. They leave the nest after two weeks and are ready to fly in six to seven weeks.

Fun Fact: The reeds that hide them to conceal themselves sway gently from side to side, just like American Bitterns do.

9. Cattle Egret

From mid-March to November, Cattle Egrets may be seen in Illinois, albeit they are not particularly plentiful.

Cattle Egrets use a clever method to capture their prey…they stand on the backs of cattle and capture the moving prey when they move and disturb the environment.

White bodies and pale orange-brown markings on their heads, necks, and backs distinguish Cattle Egrets, which are small, short-necked egrets.

Their eyes and cheeks are yellow in color. Their yellow beaks and greenish-black legs are both small. Males and femen look very similar.

During the breeding season, Cattle Egrets change color, becoming more vibrant on their legs and face.

Their pale orange patches darken during the breeding season. At the peak of their courting, their bills, legs, and irises become bright crimson, and their facial skin (lores) becomes pinkish-red.

  • Bubulcus ibis
  • Length: 19 – 21 in (48 – 53 cm)
  • Weight: 17.98 oz (510 g)
  • Wingspan: 36 – 38 in (91 – 97 cm)

Cattle Egrets may be found all year in the south of Mexico, the Gulf Coast, and southern US states, but their range extends across the globe.

Those that breed farther north, mostly in the eastern United States, migrate south after breeding.

Native grasslands, pasture, agricultural fields, and rice fields are ideal places to see Cattle Egrets, particularly if there are hoofed animals.

They do venture into the edges of aquatic environments, such as riverbanks, ponds, and shallow marshes, despite their preference to stay on land and atop cattle. Golf courses, lawns, athletic fields, dumps, and parks are also places where you might find them.

Insects, mostly grasshoppers, crickets, flies, beetles, and moths make up the diet of Cattle Egrets. Spiders, frogs, small snakes, lizards, earthworms, and fish are among the arthropods they consume.

Cattle Egret nests are often built in woodlands near lakes or rivers, in marshes, or on tiny islands and are constructed of sticks and reeds.

These eggs are incubated for around twenty-five days by the female. The young take around 45 days to fledge, become self-sufficient, and grow up.

Fun Fact: Rather than correcting for light refraction when feeding in water, the Cattle Egret’s eyes have evolved to forage on land with binocular vision.

10. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

During the summer, from April to October, yellow-crowned night-herons may be found in Illinois, although they are not particularly abundant.

Yellow crowns with two plumes protruding from their heads characterize adult Yellow-crowned Night Herons. Their black bills contrast with their speckled white bodies. The sides of their heads below their eyes are covered with a little white patch.

As they grew up, their eyes changed from yellow to orange to red.

They have grey-blue skin with a scaling design on their wings. During the breeding season, their legs become coral, pink, or red and are extended to reach roughly a meter in length.

Grayish-brown with white streaks and spots, juveniles begin life as grayish-brown. They need three years to mature into adults.

  • Nyctanassa violacea
  • Length: 22 – 28 in (56 – 71 cm)
  • Weight: 25.6 oz ( 726 g)
  • Wingspan: 42 0 44 in (107 – 112 cm)

Before migrating south, yellow-crowned night-herons breed primarily in the southeastern United States. Throughout Mexico, the Caribbean, and northern South America, they stay throughout the year.

In coastal regions with a lot of crustaceans, shallow waters, and enormous edges on which to feed, you may see Yellow-crowned Night-herons at daybreak and dusk.

Crustaceans like crabs and crayfish make up the majority of Yellow-crowned Night-herons’ diet. Fish, insects, worms, mollusks, lizards, snakes, rodents, and birds are also among the foods they consume. They have the ability to devour little prey right away.

Crabs are frequently dismembered or stabbed in the body.

Yellow-crowned Night-herons build nests near water, and their nests are commonly found in small loose colonies. Both parents make nests out of soft sticks and twigs gathered from grass, leaves, or moss.

They then incubate up to eight eggs for about three weeks together, laying up to eight eggs at a time. Chickens are fed regurgitated food when they hatch. In around a month, they fledge and can fly on their own at fifty days old.

Fun Fact: The eastern equine encephalomyelitis (EEE) virus, which can kill horses and people, is carried by Yellow-crowned Night-herons.

11. Tricolored Heron

In Illinois, tricolored herons are a uncommon or accidental species, but they were photographed near Waukegan Beach in 2022.

The white belly and neck stripe of a Tricolored Heron distinguishes it from other herons.

Adults with non-breeding feathers have a purple-blue and white combination. Their bills are black at the end and are yellowish or greyish. These creatures have yellow or olive green legs and feet.

The back of the heads of breeding adults are also covered in thin, white feathers, while the base of their beak becomes blue. On their necks and backs, they have finer feathers. Their legs, too, darken in hue.

The neck, upper breasts, upper back, and wings of juveniles are more reddish-brown.

  • Egretta tricolor
  • Length: 24 – 26 in (61 – 66 cm)
  • Weight: 14.6 oz (414 g)
  • Wingspan: 36 in (91 cm)

All year round, the Gulf Coast, Mexico, and northern South America are home to tricolored herons. Those that breed farther north migrate south as they approach the Atlantic Coast.

Freshwater and brackish marshes, estuaries, and coastal tidal pools or swamps are all good places to look for Tricolored Herons.

Tricolored Herons are protective of their feeding grounds and feed alone. Other wading birds that want to eat tiny fish, frogs, crustaceans, and insects will be chased away from their area. They will also chase other wading birds away.

These animals are expected to stalk, chase, stand, and wait for prey. Before striking, they squat low in the water, with their bellies and necks drawn in, touchng the surface.

In trees and shrubs, nests of Tricolored Herons are built from sticks and assembled in groups. The female deposits three to five eggs, which are incubated by both parents for three weeks before they hatch. The young are also fed by both of them.

Fun Fact: The only dark-colored heron with a white belly, the Tricolored Heron used to be known as the Louisiana heron.

12. Reddish Egret

In Illinois, Reddish Egrets are considered a near-threatened species and were last observed in Rend Lake in 2012.

This is one of the best birds to watch because of Reddish Egrets’ dark pink and grayish-blue tones and quick flying in order to catch fish.

They are actually dark and light morphs of Reddish Egrets, though white variants are uncommon.

Blue-gray bodies and cinnamon-toned heads, necks, and breasts distinguish dark morph Reddish Egrets. Pink with a black tip, their bills are small.

The bodies of white morphs are completely white. Their eyes are straw yellow, and their legs and feet are blue-black, with a darker skin around (lores).

Adults will breed with either morph, as juveniles are also black or white.

  • Egretta rufescens
  • Length: 27 – 32 in (69 – 81 cm)
  • Weight: 15.9 oz (451 g)
  • Wingspan: 46 in (117 cm)

Reddish Egrets may be found from northern South America to the Gulf Coast, East Coast, and Mexico.

In open marine flats and shores, you may find Reddish Egrets. Marshes, shallow bays, and lagoons are also home to them.

Reddish Egrets are mostly solitary foragers and feeders. In order to catch fish, they cross shallow, flooded flats. They quickly stab fish with their beaks after they have succeeded in frightening them up.

Reddish Egret nests are frequently found in colonies, with both parents creating a stick platform. They are often found on islands with adjacent fishing grounds.

Both parents incubate the female’s eggs, which she lays up to seven of. They will feed their offspring for up to nine weeks after leaving the nest and are committed to their young.

Fun Fact: The male will perform a head toss display and beak snapping during mating, as his feathers puff out and stand out on his head, neck, and back.

How Frequently Herons Are Spotted In Illinois In Summer And Winter

Checklists are a terrific way to discover which birds may be seen in your area. In Illinois, during the summer and winter, these lists show which herons are most often seen on eBird checklists.

Herons in Illinois in summer:

Great Blue Heron 22.9%

Great Egret 11.4%

Green Heron 8.4%

Black-crowned Night-Heron 4.1%

Little Blue Heron 0.6%

Least Bittern 0.5%

Snowy Egret 0.4%

American Bittern 0.3%

Cattle Egret 0.2%

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron 0.2%

Tricolored Heron <0.1%

Reddish Egret <0.1%

Herons in Illinois in winter:

Great Blue Heron 6.4%

Black-crowned Night-Heron 0.3%

Great Egret 0.1%

Green Heron <0.1%

American Bittern <0.1%

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron <0.1%

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