Monday, May 23, 2011

Apple #525: Herons vs. Egrets vs. Cranes

Several years ago when I was visiting my friend Maximilian, I saw in his backyard a white bird with a long skinny neck and skinny legs.  I asked him what it was, a heron, a crane, or what?  He shrugged and said, "Goony bird."  He said that's what his grandfather calls any of those wading birds because it's so hard to tell one kind apart from another.  I have used "goony bird" with great satisfaction and success ever since.

A bunch of wading birds, or goony birds. (Actually, they're egrets.)
(Photo by KS Chak at Picasa)

But recently, as I have become more aware of birds in general, I decided I wanted to know the difference.  I asked a couple of friends what the difference was.  "One kind has a crook in its neck?" one friend ventured.  "Herons are blue," said another, "aren't they?"

The fact that my other friends didn't know the difference either was a sign: time for a Daily Apple.

  • According to the various sources I found, even the birding people have trouble telling the three apart sometimes.  So if I mis-state something here, please correct me (without shouting or belittling, thanks) in the comments and I'll fix the error as soon as possible.

  • Most commonly, herons have dark, almost dusty-looking feathers. They might even look a little ragged around the edges.
  • Often their feathers are a dusty or steely blue. These are probably Great Blue Herons.
  • Very rarely herons can be white. These are Great White Herons (more on them in a bit)
  • While flying, the heron holds its neck in an S shape. This is because the head and neck weigh more than the body.
  • Most varieties of heron have a yellow beak.
  • Like to roost in trees.
  • Herons tend to be solitary (a few varieties like to hang around in groups, but not many)
  • They stand and wait for prey in the water to happen by, then spear it with their beaks.

Great Blue Heron. Younger blue herons' feathers are duller, less blue, but definitely not white.
(Photo from Carnivora forum, posted by Maersk)

Great Blue Heron in flight.  Neck held in telltale S curve.
(Photo from Zimbio)

  • There are other types of herons than the Blue and the White, but the Blue is the most common, and the fact that there's a white one is often what mixes people up.

This is a Yellow-Crowned Night Heron. One of the few varieties of heron other than the Great Blue that lives in the United States. This one is from the Everglades. Doesn't look much like a heron at the moment, but wait til it flies and you'll see that characteristic S bend.
(Photo by Amy at Magnificent Frigate Bird)
  • The Great White Heron is actually a variant of the Great Blue Heron, but it is much rarer. It lives only in South Florida especially in the Everglades and in some parts of the Caribbean.
  • Found mainly near salt water.
  • Is huge -- 50 to 54 inches long
  • Has yellow or pink or otherwise light-colored legs.

This bird was identified as a Great Egret, but its legs are yellow, which means it's a Great White Heron.
(Photo (c) Tristan Reid, sourced from

  • Herons and egrets tend to get grouped together.  Both generally have long necks and long bills.
  • Like herons, they also fly with their necks held in an S shape.  
  • Generally speaking, egrets are smaller than herons.
  • If it's all white, it's probably an egret.  Some herons have white feathers, but they also have black tips or gray overlays, or some other color involved.
  • The Snowy Egret has a black beak and black legs and yellow feet.
  • The Great Egret has a yellow beak and black legs.
  • The black legs is the easiest way to tell that it's a Great Egret and not a Great White Heron.
Snowy Egret. Smaller than herons, smaller than the Great Egret. Tends to do this hunchback thing while sitting. Note the black legs and yellow feet.
(Photo by J.R. Compton)

Snowy Egrets look more majestic while flying. They hold their necks in the S shape.
(Photo by actual at Weather Underground)

Great Egrets have bigger everything than Snowy Egrets: longer beak, longer legs, bigger wingspan. Note the black legs.
(Photo from InformZoo)

  • Cranes are in a different order than herons and egrets. They're part of the Gruiformes. I mention this only as a way of saying that the differences between herons and cranes are greater than the differences between herons and egrets.
  • Cranes fly with their necks held straight 

Neck outstretched while flying means it's a crane. This happens to be a Common Crane.
(Photo by Dr. Glenn Olson, sourced from Journey North)

  • Call sounds like a trumpet with a rolled "r" and can be heard for miles
  • Do not like trees
  • Cranes are much more gregarious, preferring to hang around in groups.
  • Cranes are the ones who do those elaborate paired courtship dances. 
  • They will eat plants as well as fish and frogs and bugs.
Sandhill cranes have brown body feathers and a red forehead.
(Photo from Wild Facts)

Whooping Crane in flight. These tallest birds in America nearly went extinct but are now making a comeback. Note the black wingtips and the red forehead and cheek. Beak is short, almost duck-like. No S bend in its neck while flying means it's not a heron or an egret.
(Photo from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, sourced from US Fish & Wildlife Service)

You might be tempted to call this a heron, since its feathers are dark gray and it's walking with a bend in its neck. But it's actually a Common Crane.  Note the red patch at the forehead, the short beak, gray legs, and relatively smooth feathers except for that bustle-like tuft at the end. And remember, the S rule only applies during flight.
(Photo by David Hutton, from the BBC)

  • There are lots of other varieties of cranes, but the Sandhill, Common, and Whooping are the three that live in North America.

OK, so let me see if I can simplify this some more so I'll actually remember the differences:
  • Herons: usually gray or dusty blue, fly with S in their neck
  • Egrets: all white with black legs, also fly with S
  • Cranes: may be lots of varying colors, fly with straight neck, like to hang out in groups

Does that help?

Bird Watcher's General Store, Cranes vs. Herons
Carnivora Forum, Sandhill Crane vs Great Blue Heron 
The Tiny Aviary, Of Cranes and Herons, July 2, 2008, Herons, Egrets, and Ibis of North America, Ardeidae: Herons, Egrets and Bitterns
USGS, South Florida Information Access, Great White Heron (Ardea herodias)
JR Compton, Amateur Birder's Journal, Herons vs. Egrets
Thinkquest, Explore the Life of a Pond, Cranes, Herons, and Egrets
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Great Blue Heron, Whooping Crane


  1. You should create a link so we can share on Facebook. Thanks for the info!

  2. Great info, thanks!

  3. Great and clear info!! thanks

  4. Great White Heron, I live in Sacramento Ca. I swear we have these birds in our neighborhood. How can i figure out just what it is? The group of egrets, also looks the same. ugh... Thanks.

  5. Observe as many details as you can about the birds. Especially the color of their legs: "Black legs is the easiest way to tell that it's a Great Egret and not a Great White Heron." Also especially note the shape of the neck when the bird is in flight: "While flying, the heron holds its neck in an S shape."

  6. Thanks, I think you have helped me to determine that we have common cranes out at our camp!! Necks straight and the rolling "r" noises they make!! And they are tall!!

  7. I have been making up my own names for these birds for years! THANK YOU for straightening everything out! :)

  8. Wonderful - just what I was looking for. FYI - we have the rare White Heron in New Zealand too. We call them Kotuku.

  9. So far I could differentiate/identify these three types, but never thought this much in detail. Great job! Kudos!!

  10. Thanks; very interesting; I've often wondered what the differences between cranes & herons were. They look so much alike when they are wading. There is a colony of Great Blue Herons nesting in area where a creek runs into a lake near us in central NC. When we first saw them there were 6 nests now 5 years later there are 22 nest in the same small area. One tree has 5 nests in it. It is cold mid-Feb now & they are already starting to hang around the nests.

  11. That was fantabulous! Finally know the difference and can impress my friends, ha! Thanks!


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