Birds – Black-crowned Night Heron

(Nycticorax nycticorax narvius)

Called also. QUAWK; QUA BIRD

Length—23 to 26 inches. Stands fully 2 feet high.

Male and Female—Three long white feathers, often twisted into apparently but one, at the back of head, worn only at the nesting season. Crown and back greenish or dull black; wings, tail, and sides of neck pearl gray with a lilac tint; forehead, throat, and underneath white. Legs and feet yellow; eyes red; bill stout and black. Immature birds very different: grayish brown, streaked or spotted with buff or white on upper parts; under parts white streaked with blackish; some reddish brown feathers in wings.

Range—United States and British provinces, nesting from Manitoba and New Brunswick southward to South America. Winters in Gulf states and beyond.

Season—Summer resident, or spring and autumn migrant north of the southern states. Resident all the year at the south.

To say that this is the most sociable member of a family that contains many misanthropic hermits, gives little idea of the night heron’s fondness for society. Colonies of hundreds of pairs are still to be found, thanks to the bird’s secluded and nocturnal habits. Some heronries contain these birds living among the blue, the great blue, or the green species, but in no very advanced state of socialism, however, for the gossiping and noisy quawking over petty quarrels that constantly arise make the place a pandemonium. Wilson, who usually pays only the kindest, most appreciative compliments to birds, likens the noise made by these to that of two or three hundred Indians choking each other!

Not because the flesh of this bird is good for food, or its plumage is desired for hats, but because it is a nuisance in the neighborhood where civilization creeps upon the ancient eyries, is the night heron hunted. Flocks become so attached to the home of their ancestors, that only the harshest persecution drives them away, and then often no further than a few hundred rods. A sickening stench pervades the air blowing off a heronry; decomposed portions of fish, frogs, mice, and other animal food lie about on the ground, that is white with the birds’ excrements. At Roslyn, Long Island, almost within sight of New York, a large colony of night herons that were driven from a populated portion of the town, where they had nested and roosted for many years, finally settled in a well wooded swamp not far off only after disgraceful persecution. One man boasts of having shot three hundred. Nevertheless there must be a thousand birds there still. For their protection, it should be added that there are few less inviting places to visit on a summer’s day than this heronry. Certainly there is as much sport in shooting at the broad side of a barn as in hitting one of these large birds that, dazed by the sunlight, sits motionless on a distended branch, where any tyro could hit it blindfolded.

The night herons arrive from the south about the middle of April, and at once repair what is left of the rickety platforms of sticks used a previous season, or build new ones. The wonder is they can weave any sort of a lattice out of such stiff, unyielding material. These nests are generally in the tops of tall trees, especially the cypresses, swamp oaks, and maples and evergreens near or growing out of a swamp; but there are also records of nests in bushes, or even on the ground. Often fluffy, helpless fledgelings are found climbing about the nest while there are still some dull, pale blue eggs unhatched in June, which suggests the possibility of the extension of socialism into the nurseries; but who knows whether the rightful parents rear only their own young ?

Toward sunset all the eyries in the swamps are emptied, and although, while the broods are young and incapable of making any effort whatever, the old birds must go a-fishing by day as well as at dusk, it is at twilight and later in the night that these herons choose to disperse among the ditches, shores of ponds and streams, the bogs and marshy meadows, to gorge upon, the teeming animal life there. Next to this bird’s fondness for an old, colonial homestead, its insatiable appetite is perhaps its most prominent characteristic. Evidently the digestion of a young heron keeps in a state of perpetual motion. The old birds, slender as they always are, grow perceptibly thinner while raising their two broods a year. A choking noise, like the painful effort to bring up a fish that has taken a wrong course down the bird’s long throat, but which is only an attempt to sing or con-verse, that old and young alike are constantly making, keeps a heronry well advertised, much to the profit of the hawks.

Standing motionless, with head drawn in between its shoulders, as it waits at the margin of a pond at evening for the food to come within striking range, the heron can scarcely be distinguished from a crooked stick. However deficient its sight .may be, especially by day, an extraordinary keenness of ear detects the first creak of an intruder’s foot, and with a quawk, quawk, the bird rises and is off, trailing its legs behind, after the manner of storks that Japanese artists have made so familiar.

Have birds a color sense ? A night heron that was seen perching among the gray branches of a native beech tree must have known how perfectly its coat blended with its surroundings, where it was all but invisible to the passers by.