My husband and I often sit in the back yard by the lake (with my camera). One recent morning this Green Heron made an appearance, lighting on a post about 15 feet from where we sat! Instead of being scared away by my camera, he stayed while I took a series of photos—and I learned something interesting.
I watched as he reached down to snatch a long-legged insect from a leaf of the pond lilies, and he still had it in his beak when I snapped the next picture. What I later learned is that Green Herons are one of only a few birds known to use tools when fishing (also night herons and some crows). They will drop bread crusts, insects, a feather or a small twig onto the water surface as bait to lure fish. The Green Heron will then grab his meal with his long, daggerlike bill.
Although their diet is mostly fish, it can include minnows, sunfishes, and shad (fish), also crayfish and other crustaceans, aquatic insects, frogs and tadpoles. Sometimes, they might eat grasshoppers, snakes, earthworms, snails, or small rodents. When Green Herons catch large frogs, they will drown them before swallowing them whole.
The Green Heron belongs to an interesting family of various herons, egrets and bitterns. Our lake is often visited by Blue Herons, Black Crowned Night Herons and white Egrets, but I’ve never seen a bittern.
Because of their diet, these birds are found near water, in lakes, ponds, marshes, swamps and streams—any aquatic habitat—especially those lined with trees, shrubs or tall vegetation, like the lake behind our home.
A Colorful Water Bird
A Green Heron is a small, dark heron with an iridescent blue-green or deep green back, dark broad wings shading into blue or green, and chestnut or rusty-colored neck and breast with a white line down the front, topped with a glossy, greenish-black cap.
An adult Green Heron’s body length is about 17 inches, with a wingspan of about 26 inches. Female adults tend to be smaller than males, with duller and lighter plumage, particularly in the breeding season. Juveniles are duller and browner, with pale streaking on the head, neck, wing and underparts, and their legs and bill are greenish-yellow compared to the adult’s yellow legs.
This short-legged heron doesn’t wade into the water like the long-legged Great Blue Herons or large White Egrets. He will usually crouch motionless at the water’s edge, sometimes partly concealed in vegetation, waiting patiently for prey. He is stocky looking with a thick neck pulled in tight against his body, but he can also stretch his neck out and sometimes raise his crown feathers into a crest.
Green Herons are usually seen early mornings or at dusk and retreat to sheltered areas in daytime. They will feed actively during the day, however, if hungry or feeding their young. They tend to be solitary and secretive rather than staying in groups.
According to the Merlin ID phone app map, our area of the Midwest is the Green Heron’s breeding grounds. Herons move to their breeding ranges during March and April and migrate to winter quarters in September and October. Some stay year-round on the edges of the western U.S. coastline, and in Florida down to the northern cap of South America.
Males Start the Nesting
According to Audubon’s online website, Green Herons are “seasonally monogamous.” Pairs form in the breeding range, after extensive courtship displays. Males select the nesting site and begin construction; then the female takes over the building while the male brings materials. They often nest in willow thickets, dry woods, mangroves or open marsh, building a platform of sticks. Nests are often found in shrubs or trees five to thirty feet above ground, sometimes even 60 feet up. Green Herons nest as isolated pairs or in small groups, rarely in large colonies.
Two to six pale green eggs are laid within about six days. Both parents share keeping the eggs warm for almost three weeks until hatching, and both feed the young birds. Hatchlings are covered in down feathers, light grey above and white underneath. The youngsters can usually swim right away and sometimes start to leave the nest at 16 days old, but they are not fully able to fend for themselves until 30–35 days old. In warmer areas, the Green Heron breeds twice a year.
YouTube has many videos featuring the Green Heron. Here are two I liked the best.