Vail Curious Nature column: Lesson in community from a night heron
The community is bustling, as herons, egrets and ibises come and go from a large cottonwood tree. While most birds nest in mated pairs, a few nest communally, sharing the warmth and protection of the roost with other birds, usually of the same species.
But a few birds, such as the black-crowned night heron, are less particular. Believed to be a monogamous species, the mated pairs build their nests in communal roosts, sharing the space with all sorts of other water-loving birds.
When we think of herons, we think of the classic great blue heron, with its statuesque posture and distinct flight pattern, but the world’s most widespread heron is the black-crowned night heron.
The elusive night heron is a chunky bird with shorter legs than its more familiar blue and green cousins, but it inhabits a similar habitat, partitioning the niche by foraging at night instead of during the day. The night heron is a social bird, breeding and living in large colonies of stick nests, usually built above water or marshy areas across North and South America.
Attracting a mate
The night heron is a voracious and opportunistic feeder, dining on a variety of terrestrial, freshwater and marine animals, but it will also eat carrion or even garbage. The night heron secures prey by grabbing it in its lightning-fast black bill, as opposed to the great blue heron’s habit of stabbing its prey before tossing and gobbling it.
During the mating season, the male begins building the nest, a platform of sturdy sticks and twigs, before setting out to attract a mate by bowing and flaunting his head plumage. Once smitten, the pair takes turns incubating the eggs and brooding the chicks, greeting each other with calls and raised feathers when switching roles.
The night heron have some interesting brooding habits, and adults have been known to brood any chick placed in their nest. Once they reach one month old, the young chicks leave the nest, despite the fact that they can’t fly for another two weeks. The young birds move through the vegetation on foot, using their more camouflaged speckled coloring to avoid predators and joining up with foraging adults at night. As an added measure of protection the young birds also often disgorge their stomach contents when approached, distracting or grossing out potential predators.
Locally, night herons have been spotted near the Gypsum Ponds, as well as in other marshy areas such as the ponds near the waste treatment center in Avon and along the Colorado River. They have an almost ghostly flight pattern, swooping down with strong, steady wing beats as they leave the roost and head for their favored feeding grounds. The night heron spend the dusk and dark hours foraging before returning to their communal roosts before dawn.
Maybe we can learn from the herons and their brethren, as they come and go, sharing the warmth and comfort gained by roosting in the same tree. Nesting together with white ibises and snowy egrets, the night heron don’t discriminate. They simply share their space — not a bad lesson.
Jaymee Squires is the director of graduate programs at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. She has yet to see a black-crowned night heron, but that doesn’t mean she will stop looking.