HERON (Fr. héron; Ital. aghirone, airone; Lat. ardea; Gr. ἐρωδιός: A.-S. hragra; Icelandic, hegre; Swed. häger; Dan. heire; Ger. Heiger, Reiher, Heergans; Dutch, reiger), a long-necked, long-winged and long-legged bird, the typical representative of the group Ardeidae. It is difficult or even impossible to estimate with any accuracy the number of species of Ardeidae which exist. Professor Hermann Schlegel in 1863 enumerated 61, besides 5 of what he terms “conspecies,” as contained in the collection at Leyden (Mus. des Pays-Bas, Ardeae, 64 pp.),—on the other hand, G. R. Gray in 1871 (Handlist, &c. iii. 26-34) admitted above 90, while Dr Anton Reichenow (Journ. für Ornithologie, 1877, pp. 232-275) recognizes 67 as known, besides 15 “subspecies” and 3 varieties, arranging them in 3 genera, Nycticorax, Botaurus and Ardea, with 17 sub-genera. But it is difficult to separate the family, with any satisfactory result, into genera, if structural characters have to be found for these groups, for in many cases they run almost insensibly into each other—though in common language it is easy to speak of herons, egrets, bitterns, night-herons and boatbills. With the exception of the last, Professor Schlegel retains all in the genus Ardea, dividing it into eight sections, the names of which may perhaps be Englished—great herons, small herons, egrets, semi-egrets, rail-like herons, little bitterns, bitterns and night-herons.

Fig. 1.—Heron.

The common heron of Europe, Ardea cinerea of Linnaeus, is universally allowed to be the type of the family, and it may also be regarded as that of Professor Schlegel’s first section. The species inhabits suitable localities throughout the whole of Europe, Africa and Asia, reaching Japan, many of the islands of the Indian Archipelago and even Australia. Though by no means so numerous as formerly in Britain, it is still sufficiently common,[1] and there must be few persons who have not seen it rising slowly from some river-side or marshy flat, or passing overhead in its lofty and leisurely flight on its way to or from its daily haunts; while they are many who have been entertained by watching it as it sought its food, consisting chiefly of fishes (especially eels and flounders) and amphibians—though young birds and small mammals come not amiss—wading midleg in the shallows, swimming occasionally when out of its depth, or standing motionless to strike its prey with its formidable and sure beak. When sufficiently numerous the heron breeds in societies, known as heronries, which of old time were protected both by law and custom in nearly all European countries, on account of the sport their tenants afforded to the falconer. Of late years, partly owing to the withdrawal of the protection they had enjoyed, and still more, it would seem, from agricultural improvement, which, by draining meres, fens and marshes, has abolished the feeding-places of a great population of herons, many of the larger heronries have broken up—the birds composing them dispersing to neighbouring localities and forming smaller settlements, most of which are hardly to be dignified by the name of heronry, though commonly accounted such. Thus the number of so-called heronries in the United Kingdom, and especially in England and Wales, has become far greater than formerly, but no one can doubt that the number of herons has dwindled. The sites chosen by the heron for its nest vary greatly. It is generally built in the top of a lofty tree, but not unfrequently (and this seems to have been much more usual in former days) near or on the ground among rough vegetation, on an island in a lake, or again on a rocky cliff of the coast. It commonly consists of a huge mass of sticks, often the accumulation of years, lined with twigs, and in it are laid from four to six sea-green eggs. The young are clothed in soft flax-coloured down, and remain in the nest for a considerable time, therein differing remarkably from the “pipers” of the crane, which are able to run almost as soon as they are hatched. The first feathers assumed by young herons in a general way resemble those of the adult, but the pure white breast, the black throat-streaks and especially the long pendent plumes, which characterize only the very old birds, and are most beautiful in the cocks, are subsequently acquired. The heron measures about 3 ft. from the bill to the tail, and the expanse of its wings is sometimes not less than 6 ft., yet it weighs only between 3 and 4 ℔.

Large as is the common heron of Europe, it is exceeded in size by the great blue heron of America (Ardea herodias), which generally resembles it in appearance and habits, and both are smaller than the A. sumatrana or A. typhon of India and the Malay Archipelago, while the A. goliath, of wide distribution in Africa and Asia, is the largest of all. The purple heron, A. purpurea, as a well-known European species having a great range over the Old World, also deserves mention here. The species included in Professor Schlegel’s second section inhabit the tropical parts of Africa, Australasia and America. The egrets, forming his third group, require more notice, distinguished as they are by their pure white plumage, and, when in breeding-dress, by the beautiful dorsal tufts of decomposed feathers that ordinarily droop over the tail, and are so highly esteemed as ornaments by Oriental magnates. The largest species is A. occidentalis, only known apparently from Florida and Cuba; but one not much less, the great egret (A. alba), belongs to the Old World, breeding regularly in south-eastern Europe, and occasionally straying to Britain. A third, A. egretta, represents it in America, while much the same may be said of two smaller species, A. garzetta, the little egret of English authors, and A. candidissima; and a sixth, A. intermedia, is common in India, China and Japan, besides occurring in Australia. The group of semi-egrets, containing some nine or ten forms, among which the buff-backed heron (A. bubulcus), is the only species that is known to have occurred in Europe, is hardly to be distinguished from the last section except by their plumage being at certain seasons varied in some species with slaty-blue and in others with rufous. The rail-like herons form Professor Schlegel’s next section, but it can scarcely be satisfactorily differentiated, and the epithet is misleading, for its members have no rail-like affinities, though the typical species, which inhabits the south of Europe, and occasionally finds its way to England, has long been known as A. ralloides.[2] Nearly all these birds are tropical or subtropical. Then there is the somewhat better defined group of little bitterns, containing about a dozen species—the smallest of the whole family. One of them, A. minuta, though very local in its distribution, is a native of the greater part of Europe, and has bred in England. It has a close counterpart in the A. exilis of North America, and is represented by three or four forms in other parts of the world, the A. pusilla of Australia especially differing very slightly from it. Ranged by Professor Schlegel with these birds, which are all remarkable for their skulking habits, but more resembling the true herons in their nature, are the common green bittern of America (A. virescens) and its very near ally the African A. atricapilla, from which last it is almost impossible to distinguish the A. javanica, of wide range throughout Asia and its islands, while other species, less closely related, occur elsewhere as A. flavicollis—one form of which, A. gouldi, inhabits Australia.

Fig. 2.—Bittern.

The true bitterns, forming the genus Botaurus of most authors, seem to be fairly separable, but more perhaps on account of their wholly nocturnal habits and correspondingly adapted plumage than on strictly structural grounds, though some differences of proportion are observable. The common bittern (q.v.) of Europe (B. stellaris), is widely distributed over the eastern hemisphere.[3] Australia and New Zealand have a kindred species, B. poeciloptilus, and North America a third, B. mugitans[4] or B. lentiginosus. Nine other species from various parts of the world are admitted by Professor Schlegel, but some of them should perhaps be excluded from the genus Botaurus.

Fig. 3.—Boatbill.

Of the night-herons the same author recognizes six species, all of which may be reasonably placed in the genus Nycticorax, characterized by a shorter beak and a few other peculiarities, among which the large eyes deserve mention. The first is N. griseus, a bird widely spread over the Old World, and not unfrequently visiting England, where it would undoubtedly breed if permitted. Professor Schlegel unites with it the common night-heron of America; but this, though very closely allied, is generally deemed distinct, and is the N. naevius or N. gardeni of most writers. A clearly different American species, with a more southern habitat, is the N. violaceus or N. cayennensis, while others are found in South America, Australia, some of the Asiatic Islands and in West Africa. The Galapagos have a peculiar species, N. pauper, and another, so far as is known, peculiar to Rodriguez, N. megacephalus, existed in that island at the time of its being first colonized, but is now extinct.

The boatbill, of which only one species is known, seems to be merely a night-heron with an exaggerated bill,—so much widened as to suggest its English name,—but has always been allowed generic rank. This curious bird, the Cancroma cochlearia of most authors, is a native of tropical America, and what is known of its habits shows that they are essentially those of a Nycticorax.[5]

Bones of the common heron and bittern are not uncommon in the peat of the East-Anglian fens. Remains from Sansan and Langy in France have been referred by Alphonse Milne-Edwards to herons under the names of Ardea perplexa and A. formosa; a tibia from the Miocene of Steinheim am Albuch by Dr Fraas to an A. similis, while Sir R. Owen recognized a portion of a sternum from the London Clay as most nearly approaching this family.

It remains to say that the herons form part of Huxley’s section Pelargomorphae, belonging to his larger group Desmognathae, and to draw attention to the singular development of the patches of “powder-down” which in the family Ardeidae attain a magnitude hardly to be found elsewhere. Their use is utterly unknown.  (A. N.) 

  1. In many parts of England it is generally called a “hernser”—being a corruption of “heronsewe,” which, as Professor Skeat states (Etymol. Dictionary, p. 264), is a perfectly distinct word from “heronshaw,” commonly confounded with it. The further corruption of “hernser” into “handsaw,” as in the well-known proverb, was easy in the mouth of men to whom hawking the heronsewe was unfamiliar.
  2. It is the “Squacco-Heron” of modern British authors—the distinctive name, given “Sguacco” by Willughby and Ray from Aldrovandus, having been misspelt by Latham.
  3. The last-recorded instance of the bittern breeding in England was in 1868, as mentioned by Stevenson (Birds of Norfolk, ii. 164).
  4. Richardson, a most accurate observer, asserts (Fauna Boreali-Americana, ii. 374) that its booming (whence the epithet) exactly resembles that of its Old-World congener, but American ornithologists seem only to have heard the croaking note it makes when disturbed.
  5. The very wonderful shoe-bird (Balaeniceps) has been regarded by many authorities as allied to Cancroma; but there can be little doubt that it is more nearly related to the genus Scopus belonging to the storks. The sun-bittern (Eurypyga) forms a family of itself, allied to the rails and cranes.