Bird Watcher's General Store

Yellow-crowned Night-Herons
06/26/09

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Dear Bird Folks,

Please find the enclosed illustration of a bird that I saw recently near the Housatonic River. I only saw it for about a minute, but the image was so clear in my mind that I was able to produce this drawing. However, I'm still not able to figure out what kind of bird it is. Can you help?

- Betty, Milford, CT

This is the best, Betty,

The illustration you sent me is by far the best illustration anyone has ever sent to me. And just because it is the only illustration anyone has ever sent to me shouldn't take away from it. The image you drew was dead-on perfect. You wouldn't happen to be one of those courtroom illustrators, would you? If you aren't, perhaps you should think about becoming one. Your mystery bird not only was textbook in detail but it also had a sinister look, like it had just been hauled in for selling fake Rolexes. Don't ask me how I know that look, I just do. That's all I'm saying.

Based on your superb drawing, I'm 100% sure your mystery bird is a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. I can see why you would have trouble identifying it; they are uncommon birds in Connecticut and typically only come out at night, which makes seeing one even more unlikely. With chunky heads, thick necks and bodies, yellow-crowns are less sleek than most long-legged waders, looking like a cross between a Great Blue Heron and a lava lamp. They tend to walk erect, which is the opposite of Connecticut's more common night-heron, the Black-crowned Night-Heron. Black-crowns seem to have no necks, tend to stand compact and walk hunched over, looking like a cross between a vulture and Groucho Marx. (I don't know why I'm so into "cross-breeding" today. I'll try not to do it again.)

Like most herons, yellow-crowns are aquatic feeders. They can be found along both coastal and inland wetlands, but while many other herons have a preference for fresh fish, yellow-crowns would rather dine on cracked crab. The higher an area's crab population, the more likely it will have Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. And even though these birds are master crab hunters, it doesn't mean capturing these snappy creatures is easy. Unlike wiggly fish, crabs fight back...just ask anyone who has ever tried to pick one up. If you or I wanted to grab a crab, we'd probably approach it from behind in order to avoid those nasty claws. Herons, on the other hand, have a different approach. They go right for the pincers. In a flash, they clamp down with their thick bill. Then, with a quick snap of the head, the pincers are separated from the crab's body and the battle is over. Pincers can be a pretty formidable weapon, but they aren't so formidable when they are no longer attached to the crab.

Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are so good at hunting crabs that in the 1970s the Government of Bermuda imported forty-six of them from Florida. Bermuda had an out-of-control land crab population and they weren't happy about it. It was hoped that reintroducing the herons would decrease the crustacean's population. (Yes, "reintroducing." The native herons were wiped out when the British moved in during the 1600s. No one is sure what happened to the birds but it is believed they were all killed when they rented mopeds and tried to drive on the Island's narrow streets.) Typically, transplanting species from one ecosystem to another leads to ecological problems, but this time it actually worked. The herons chowed down on the crabs and have since kept the population in check. Now if you want to find crabs in Bermuda, you have to go to the airport and ask for a customs agent.

With their warm gray bodies, and distinctive black, white and yellow heads, adult Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are handsome birds, or least handsome as far as herons go. However, their kids are another matter. Calling a heron chick ugly would be an insult to the word "ugly." Yellow-crown babies are born partially naked with a smattering of spiky white feathers, which makes them look like a cross between a Chihuahua and a toilet brush. (Oops! Okay, that's the last cross-breeding reference. Honest.) Despite the ugliness, both parents work hard to provide vittles for their young birds. Interestingly, instead of shoving a meal into their youngsters' open mouths the adults simply regurgitate the half-eaten food into the middle of the nest and let the kids take it from there. Scientists aren't sure if this is a more efficient way to feed the young birds or if the sight of such ugly babies simply makes the parents sick. More research needs to be done on the subject.

You are lucky to see a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Betty. They are uncommon birds in southern New England, which is the northern limit of their eastern U.S. breeding range. We occasionally see them on Cape Cod, but I'm not aware of any nesting pairs. Also, thank you for that great drawing. It really made identifying your mystery bird very easy. I wish I could draw like that. Anytime I try to draw a bird (sorry, one last cross-breeding reference) it comes out looking like a cross between a bird drawn by Picasso and Jackson Pollock. It looks cool but no one knows what the heck it is.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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