Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Nyctanassa violacea

  • Version: 2.0 — Published December 21, 2011
  • Bryan D. Watts

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in North and Middle America.

Strays often appear north and west of the mapped range, mainly in spring (adults) or in late summer-early fall (juveniles). See text for details and for distribution in South America.

Adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Sanibel Is., FL, 3 March.

Although Yellow-crowned Night-Herons can be seen foraging in shallow waters during the daytime, they are more nocturnal in their activities than the similar Black-crowned Night-Heron. Both typically roost together in trees by day, and leave these sites in the early evening to feed in adjacent marshes. This is a link to this photographer's gallery:

In full nuptial display, the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is one of the most exquisite of all North American wading birdsIts soft grays and white crown and cheek patches seem to typify the elfin character of the cypress gloom.

— A. Sprunt, Jr.

Although occasionally breeding on coastal islands, this species most often inhabits forested wetlands, swamps, and bayous of the deep south where poor lighting seems to be the most reliable characteristic of its breeding sites.

Across its range, the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron specializes in taking crustaceans, especially crabs, which it hunts using slow stalking movements. When it catches a large crab, the bird methodically dismembers and eats it, body first. Indeed, the breeding ecology of the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron reflects the temporal dynamics of crab availability. Northern populations retreat to subtropical and tropical latitudes in the fall where crabs are active year-round.

Six subspecies of this heron have been described, including five tropical forms, two of which are island endemics. The North American subspecies, N. v. violacea, experienced a dramatic northward range expansion between 1925 and 1960, with eleven new state breeding records established over this period. Many of these areas had been previously occupied during the mid-1800s, followed by a sharp range contraction in the late 1800s.

Recommended Citation

Watts, B. D. (2011). Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (Nyctanassa violacea), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.