I’m fortunate that I live in a land of green, with lush vegetation year round to support and nurture birds and other wildlife. Of course, some birds blend into that vegetation with their own green plumage, and one of the best is the green heron.
Name: Green Heron
Scientific Name: Butorides virescens
Scientific Family: Ardeidae (Herons)
Habitat: Prefers thick, swampy vegetation or wooded marshes, though habitat areas do not necessarily need to be large or isolated. Any swamps, marshes, rivers, ponds, estuaries or retention areas with good vegetation may be suitable for green herons to use, and they are often found in ditches, flooded fields or other temporary marsh-like areas, even in urban or suburban areas.
Range: Widespread year-round, including in southern California through Mexico, the southeastern United States, the Caribbean, central America and northern South America. Only found in winter from central Mexico through central Honduras, though coastal areas are occupied year-round. The summer breeding range extends north along the Pacific coast into southwestern British Columbia, and in the east, breeding green herons range from eastern Texas and Oklahoma north to eastern North Dakota and Minnesota, all the way to the Atlantic coast and into southern Ontario and Quebec.
Green herons are aptly named for their dark green backs, but they’re far more colorful than their monochrome name may initially suggest. Their heads and napes are also dark green, but their lores – that small bit between the base of the bill and the front of the eyes – can be bright yellow-green in breeding plumage. The wings show brighter blue-green iridescence in good light, with each feather defined by a buff border. The neck is a rich, bold chestnut shade with white streaks along the throat, while the lower abdomen is a medium gray. The legs and feet are bright yellow. Both genders look similar, but fresh, breeding plumage is brightest and these birds can look more significantly dull later in the year or in poor light.
These can be confusing birds, and many times I’ve been asked about green herons because their varied posture can make their size and proportions vary dramatically. I typically see these birds in a pouting, skulking pose with their head tucked in and neck poised to strike as they watch carefully for prey. They’re deliberate, calculating hunters, and in fact they’re one of the few birds that has been documented as using tools to hunt. Green herons will take small leaves, moss, feathers, twigs, insects or even bits of bread from picnic areas and drop them into a pond, enticing small fish to the surface where they can be caught more easily.
I’m fortunate that I’m able to see these birds several times a week, in many different areas. I’ve seen them poised in wet ditches next to busy gas stations, traipsing alongside a scummy pond behind our local McDonald’s and perched on shrubs and branches overhanging the water’s edge at a local wetlands. I’ve also seen green herons standing on docks and private piers along the river and tramping through brush and reeds at a large lake just a couple miles from my home. So many sightings and so many opportunities to see what is often a hard-to-find bird may make some birders green with envy, but remember, we all have some birds that are easy for us but more difficult for others to see. Enjoy the birds in your wider regional backyard, and you’ll never be without a bird to appreciate!