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

In Iowa, ten of the 17 species of herons that frequent North America have been discovered. There are two more that are uncommon or unintended. This guide will assist you in identifying and understanding these long-legged birds.

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

However, many of your fish herons are protected and therefore require a net to be caught, so a nets is your best option.

Herons prefer to hunt alone by remaining completely still and waiting for the prey or dashing about to stir it up, but they frequently nest in huge colonies known as heronries.

A group of herons is known by a variety of names, including “rookery,” “battery,” “hedge,” “siege,” and “pose” to mention a few.

You might want to learn more about the ducks, swans, or pelicans you can see here if you are interested in seeing waterbirds in Iowa.

12 Species Of Heron In Iowa

1. Great Blue Heron

From April through October, Great Blue Herons may be found in Iowa, but they are also seen year-round. They are found on 18% of bird watchers’ summer checklists and 1% of their winter checklists for the state.

The biggest heron native to North America, Great Blue Herons are massive, magnificent birds.

Their face is white, and their crest or plume extends from the front of their eyes to the rear of their skulls. They have a yellowish-orangish color to their bills.

Their bodies are grayish-blue, and their legs are long. They have long grey necks with black and white streaks 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, although those that breed in the Mid-West and Canada migrate south during winter.

In Florida, the Great White Heron is a white morph subspecies of the Great Blue Heron.

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

Fish, frogs, salamanders, shrimps, crabs, dragonflies, grasshoppers, and other aquatic insects are the main diet of Great Blue Herons.

When wading or standing in water, they capture their prey. Hovering above water, diving into it, leaping feet-first from perches, and floating on the surface are all possible behaviors.

Great Blue Heron colonies may be found high in the trees, close to water. Twigs and sticks are used to construct the nests, which are lined with softer material.

Great Blue Herons may rebuild and expand their nests over time, thanks to their habit of reuseing nests.

After that, the female lays two to seven eggs. For approximately four weeks, both parents alternate incubating the eggs.

Fun Fact: With their heads thrown back, Great Blue Herons defend their feeding area with spectacular outstretched wing displays.

2. Great Egret

From March through November, Great Egrets can be seen in Iowa, accounting for 3% of summer checklists.

Males have neon green facial skin and lengthy, wispy feathers (aigrettes) extending from their backs to their tails, which they display off during courting like a peacock spreads out its tail. Great Egrets are at their most beautiful during the breeding season.

They’re called Great White Herons because they’re enormous, all-white herons. Common egrets are another name for them. These huge white birds have long, dagger-like bills, black legs and feet, and are covered in feathers.

Males, females, and juveniles all have the same appearance during non-breeding periods.

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

The world’s largest range of Great Egrets can be found. While those in the southern and coastal United States stay for the year, those who live farther inland or in Canada go south.

In freshwater and saltwater marshes, as well as fish ponds, you may see Great Egrets.

Fish, frogs, small mammals, crabs, and insects make up the majority of Great Egrets’ diet. You may observe Great Egrets waiting and scouting for their meal on the water, then lunging and spearing it with their long bills once they find it.

Fish, frogs, small mammals, crustaceans, and insects make up the majority of Great Egret’s diets. Great Egrets stand motionless on the water, waiting for their prey and scouting it before stabbing it with their long bills.

Great Egret colonies have nests. To protect the nests from predators like raccoons, they are generally placed high up in trees, preferably on islands.

Sticks, twigs, and marsh plant stems are used to make them. Females lay six eggs, which are incubated for around twenty-five days by both parents.

Fun Fact: Because of their long white feathers (aigrettes), the Great Egret was almost hunted to extinction.

3. Green Heron

Between April and October, Green Herons breed in Iowa and are mostly seen. Summer checklists include them in 3% of the time.

The glossy green-black color of the crowns, crests, backs, and wings of Green Herons is what gives them their name; from a distance, they appear to be hunchbacked and dark.

In the breeding season, their bills turn black, which are two-toned and have a dark top and a yellow bottom. Their irises and legs become orange as well.

Chestnut or maroon coloration surrounds their heads, necks, and breasts. The neck has a white stripe down the front portion that runs the length of the neck. Gray is the color of their bellies.

Browner with blacker caps and a crested head, juveniles are more

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

Before migrating south, Green Herons breed mostly in the eastern United States and the Pacific Coast. The Gulf Coast, Caribbean, and Mexico, on the other hand, have year-round residents.

Green Herons may be found in damp meadows, marshes, lakes, ponds, and other watery environments 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.

Little fish, insects, spiders, crabs, snails, amphibians, reptiles, and rodents are all part of the Green Heron’s diet. Rather of wading, they typically hunt from the shore by perched on sticks over the water.

Green Heron nests are placed high in the trees over water, however they may also be located on the ground, hidden under shrubs.

Females lay two eggs every two days, with a 2-day gap between them. The final egg is deposited, and both parents begin incubating for around twenty days. When their eggs hatch, they both feed their young.

Fun Facts:  Bait, such as bread, feathers, twigs, and leaves, is used by Green Herons to catch their food. (Davis and Kushlan, 1994) This is one of the few bird species that does so.

4. American Bittern

From April to mid-November, American Bitterns are present in Iowa for the breeding season. They are not particularly widespread.

In the spring of the American Bittern, you may hear strange watery boom cries long before you see them, if you’re lucky. Here are some samples…

The Heron family includes the American Bitterns, who are a chunky, medium-sized species.

Because of their brown striped and mottled patterning, they resemble the reeds they hide in, and their ability to remain motionless amid the reeds with their head tilted up.

They have short 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 travelling to the Gulf Coast and Mexico, American Bitterns breed in Canada and northern US states.

Shallow freshwater marshes and wetlands with tall reeds are almost exclusively home to American Bitterns.

Search for them among the coarse vegetation on the edges of lakes and ponds.

Fish, crustaceans, insects, amphibians, and small mammals make up the diet of American Bitterns. They wait quietly and motionlessly in the reeds, waiting for their prey to approach before dashing quickly forward to snare them with their bills.

On the water, among rough vegetation, you may spot nests of American Bitterns. Females select a nest location and construct it out of available reeds, sedges, cattails, and other flora.

They lay around seven eggs, which are incubated for around twenty-six days. The females feed the chicks straight into their beaks when they are hatched. They leave the nest after two weeks, and it takes six to seven weeks for them to be fully fledged.

Fun Fact: Just like the reeds that conceal them to hide themselves, American Bitterns point upwards and sway gently from side to side.

5. Black-crowned Night-Heron

In Iowa, black-crowned night-herons are rather rare, although they may be seen during migration.

The typical description of the heron family does not apply to Black-crowned Night-Herons, commonly known as Night Herons. It has a shorter bill, neck, and legs than most birds.

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

Their lores (in front of the eye, towards the bill) are green-blue, and their eyes are red. They have a lighter back and are white on the bottom. They have yellow legs and feet.

The head and back become glossy blue-green during the breeding season, with two or three white feathers appearing on the crown. The legs and feet turn crimson or pink, while the lores also darken.

With some streaking and spotting, juveniles are a dull grayish-brown overall.

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

The worldwide range of Black-crowned Night-herons is enormous. Before migrating south, they breed in the United States and Canada. Along the coasts, some may be found all year.

Wetland habitats 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 to house them.

Night-feeders like black-crowned night herons, which include crayfish, fish, and even turtles or worms in their diet.

Males build nests for Black-crowned Night-herons in bushes or trees, which are started by them in preparation for selecting their partners.

The female will lay seven eggs at two-day intervals after that. Once the eggs are placed, both parents begin to incubate them for around twenty-four days. For approximately three weeks, the parents will be responsible for their infant.

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.

6. Least Bittern

From April to September, Least Bitterns are spotted in Iowa, but they are not particularly common.

In the Americas, Least Bitterns are the tiniest herons, and they may be heard before you see them in the reeds.

In the reeds, you may hear Least Bitterns before you see them, because they are the tiniest herons in North America.

Their bill is yellow and they have brown and white colors with a black cap and top. The reeds are gripped with their long toes and claws.

Adults have lighter backs and crowns, but juveniles and males are similar.

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

The range of Little Bitterns is Europe and Africa, with a few exceptions in North America.

Least Bitterns may be seen in rich freshwater and brackish marshlands, especially near large cattails and reeds. When they sit on reeds, look for them.

They’ll immediately stop moving, raise their bills to the sky, and sway in time with the reeds when they sense danger.

Small fish, frogs, tadpoles, salamanders, slugs, dragonflies, aquatic bugs, and occasionally mice make up the diet of least bitterns. They lie on the reeds, twisting themselves into uncomfortable positions just to reach their prey, who lies on the surface of the water.

The female of the Least Bittern creates well-concealed nests from cattails and marsh vegetation, which are well-concealed platforms. She deposits up to seven eggs, which her parents incubate for around twenty days. They then regurgitate food to feed newly-hatched chicks.

Fun Fact: Least Bitterns have necks that are quite long, yet they remain in a hunchbacked stance.

7. Cattle Egret

During the summer and migration seasons, Cattle Egrets have been observed in Iowa, although they are not particularly common.

Cattle Egrets employ a clever technique of capturing their meal…they stand on the backs of cattle and capture the displaced prey when the cattle walk and disturb the ground.

With white bodies and light orange-brown patches on their heads, necks, and backs, Cattle Egrets are little, short-necked egrets.

Their eyes and face skin are yellow, as is the rest of their body. Their bills are small and their legs are greenish-black. Males and females have a similar appearance.

During the breeding season, Cattle Egrets change color and become brighter, particularly on their legs and face.

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

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

The range of Cattle Egrets across the globe is enormous, however those in Mexico, the Gulf Coast, and the southwestern United States remain year-round.

Those, on the other hand, who breed farther north tend to migrate south after copulating.

Native grasslands, pastures, agricultural fields, and rice paddies are all good places to see Cattle Egrets, particularly if there are hoofed animals.

These creatures prefer to stay on land and atop cattle, but will explore the edges of watery settings, such as riverbanks, ponds, and shallow marshes. Golf courses, lawns, athletic fields, dumps, and parks are other places where they may be seen.

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 animals they consume.

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

They incubate nine eggs for around twenty-five days, which the female lays. The young take around 45 days to fledge, become fully independent of their parents, and develop into adults.

Fun Fact: Instead of correcting for light refraction while feeding in water, the Cattle Egret’s eyes have evolved to forage on land by having binocular vision to see distance.

8. Snowy Egret

Although snowy egrets may be seen in Iowa, they are seldom seen.

Little, all-white herons known as snowy egrets. They feature long, black bills with bright yellow feet and yellow irises with skin surrounding their eyes.

Long, lacy feathers grow on their heads, necks, and backs during the breeding season. During courtship, their lores or face skin become reddish-pink, and their toes become orange-red.

Interestingly, during aggressive encounters, these regions of their bodies turn bright red.

Adults have head plumes, whereas juveniles do not. Their bills and legs are likewise lighter in hue, with lores and legs that are more greenish-yellow.

Adults and juveniles have head plumes, but not juveniles. 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 coast, snowy egrets migrate across most of the United States. Throughout Mexico, Central, and South America, they survive all year.

Snowy Egrets live in marshes, riverbanks, lakesides, pools, salt marshes, and estuaries. They may be found in shallow marsh environments. Swamp forests with safe trees and shrubs are preferred for nesting.

Fish, crustaceans, snails, frogs, and crayfish are all hunted by snowy egrets in shallow water. They might rest still and wait for prey to approach them, or they might agitate the water in order for their prey to come to the top.

The males pick a nest among the Snowy Egret family. They choose a site and advertise it to attract mates, complete with a display. The males continue to give sticks, sedges, or reeds while the females constructs the nest when they pair up.

Nesting trees or bushes on the ground are common locations. Both parents take turns incubating their eggs after the female lays two to six eggs. The typical incubation period is twenty-four days.

Fun Fact: Because of their exquisite white head feathers, which were commonly used as a hat decoration or accessory, the Snowy Egret was almost hunted to extinction.

9. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

From May to September, yellow-crowned night-herons can be found in Iowa, and they are seen in 1% of all checklists at the time.

The yellow crowns of adult Yellow-crowned Night Herons are topped with two plumes. Their black bills contrast with their small size. Their remaining heads are black, except for a small white patch on the sides below their eyes.

As they grow up, their eyes become red, then yellow, then orange.

Their wings feature a scaled design and their bodies are gray-blue. During the breeding season, their legs grow longer and turn coral, pink, or red.

Grayish-brown with white streaks and specks, juveniles begin life. They take three years to develop 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 heading south, yellow-crowned night-herons breed primarily in the southern United States. Throughout Mexico, the Caribbean, and northern South America, they stay throughout the year.

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

Crustaceans like crabs and crayfish make up the majority of Yellow-crowned Night-heron’s diets. Fish, insects, worms, mollusks, lizards, snakes, rodents, and birds are among the other foods they eat. Little prey can be devoured immediately by them.

Crabs are often dismembered and/or stabbed in the body.

Yellow-crowned Night-herons nests are commonly found in tiny, loosely clustered groups, yet they always prefer to build near water. Both parents build the nests, which are constructed of soft sticks and twigs gathered from grass, leaves, or moss.

After that, she incubates up to eight eggs for approximately three weeks together. The chicks are fed via regurgitation when they hatch. They can fly on their own after a month of fledging, at fifty days.

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

10. Little Blue Heron

In Iowa, Little Blue Herons are relatively rare, but during migration, they may be seen.

These aren’t really small adult Little Blue Herons. They have long, stretched bodies and are medium to large in size. With dangling feathers across the nape, their heads and necks have a purple hue.

During the breeding season, their eyes turn gray-green, which are pale yellow. Their two-toned bills, which are pale blue or gray with black tips, are long and dagger-like. Slate-blue is the color of their bodies. Long, black to gray-green legs are characteristic of these species.

When they are a year old, juvenile Little Blue Herons are completely white, turning dark gray, blue, and white in the second year.

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

Before travelling south, Little Blue Herons breed in the eastern United States, and those in the Gulf Coast and Mexico remain year-round.

Little Blue Herons may be found near water, such as in marshes, bogs, ponds, streams, lagoons, tidal flats, canals, ditches, fish hatcheries, and flooded fields.

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

Fish, frogs, snakes, turtles, spiders, crustaceans, mice, and insects make up the diet of Little Blue Herons. Adolescents like to stay with mixed groups, but adults prefer to forage alone.

Little Blue Heron nests are constructed of sticks and are commonly found in groups with other herons. Up to six eggs are laid by the female. For up to twenty-four days, both parents share in the incubation process.

Fun Fact: Juvenile Little Blue Herons’ presence among Snowy Egrets allows them to capture more fish and face off against predators with the white coloring of their feathers.

11. Tricolored Heron

In Iowa, Tricolored Herons are considered an unintentional species and are extremely unusual. They were recently sighted in Dubuque, however, in 2022.

With its white belly and neck stripe, you can quickly identify a Tricolored Heron from other herons.

Adults that are not breeding have a purple-blue combination of feathers. Their bills have a black tip and are yellowish or greyish in color. They have yellow or olive green legs and feet.

Adults that are not breeding have a mixture of blue-gray, purple, and white feathers. Their bills have a black tip and are yellowish or greyish. Yellow or olive green is the color of their legs and feet.

The back of the head of breeding adults is also covered in thin, white feathers, and the base of their beak turns blue. On their necks and backs, they have finer feathers as well. Their legs, too, become a reddish color.

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)

Along the Gulf Coast, Mexico, and northern South America, Tricolored Herons are seen all year. Those who breed further down the Atlantic Coast migrate south.

Tricolored Herons may be found in freshwater and brackish marshes, estuaries, and coastal tidal pools or swamps.

Tricolored Herons defend their feeding grounds and are solitary feeders. Other wading birds that want to eat small fish, frogs, crustaceans, and insects will be chased away from their territory by them.

Stalkers, chasers, stalkers, and waiters are all expected to appear. Before striking, they squat low in the water, with their bellies touching the surface and their necks drawn in.

Tricolored Heron nests are constructed from sticks and placed in trees and shrubs in colonies. After that, the female lays three to five eggs, and both parents assist in the incubation, which takes three weeks. They also breastfeed the infants.

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

12. Reddish Egret

In Iowa, Reddish Egrets are deemed a near-threatened species and have not been recorded in the state for a long time, according to records.

This is one of the best birds to watch because of Reddish Egrets’ dark pink and grayish-blue hues, as well as their frantic hunting to capture fish.

They are actually a dark and light morph of Reddish Egrets, with white morphs being uncommon.

The bodies, heads, necks, and breasts of dark morph Reddish Egrets are blue-gray. Pink with a black tip, their bills are quite attractive.

The bodies of white morphs are totally devoid of color. Their eyes are straw yellow, and their skin is darker around the (lores) and legs and feet are blue-black.

Adults may breed with either morph, but juveniles are also dark or white.

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

From the Gulf Coast, East Coast, and Mexico through northern South America, Reddish Egrets may be seen all year.

Reddish Egrets can be found on open seas and beaches. Marshes, shallow bays, and lagoons are also home to them.

Reddish Egrets generally eat by themselves. In the hopes of catching fish, they cross shallow, flooded flats. They immediately stab fish with their beaks after they have successfully scared them up.

Reddish Egrets’ nests are frequently found in colonies, and both parents work together to create a stick platform. Protected islands with nearby feeding sites are often used to house them.

Both parents incubate the female’s eggs, which may contain up to seven eggs. Even after they leave the nest, they will feed their young for up to nine weeks and care for them until they are able to fly.

Fun Fact: The male will perform a head toss display and beak snapping during mating, puffing out and standing out on his head, neck, and back.

How Frequently Herons Are Spotted In Iowa In Summer And Winter

To find out which birds are commonly seen in your state, use Checklists. In the summer and winter of Iowa, these charts reveal which herons are most often observed on ebird checklists.

Herons in Iowa in summer:

Great Blue Heron 18.7%

Green Heron 3.9%

Great Egret 3.4%

Least Bittern 0.6%

American Bittern 0.5%

Black-crowned Night-Heron 0.4%

Cattle Egret 0.2%

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron 0.2%

Snowy Egret 0.1%

Little Blue Heron 0.1%

Tricolored Heron <0.1%

Herons in Iowa in winter:

Great Blue Heron 1.1%

Black-crowned Night-Heron <0.1%

Cattle Egret <0.1%

Great Egret <0.1%

American Bittern <0.1%

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