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All Things Heron.
Information and pictures on Herons, Egret and Bitterns.
Educational, Zoological, and Classification info.



The herons are wading birds in the Ardeidae family. Some are called egrets or bitterns instead of herons. Within the family, all members of the genera Botaurus and Ixobrychus are referred to as bitterns, and—including the Zigzag Heron or Zigzag Bittern—are a monophyletic group within the Ardeidae. However, egrets are not a biologically distinct group from the herons, and tend to be named differently because they are mainly white or have decorative plumes.

The classification of the individual heron/egret species is fraught with difficulty, and there is still no clear consensus about the correct Herons placement of many species into either of the two major genera, Ardea and Egretta. Similarly, the relationship of the genera in the family is not completely resolved. For example, the Boat-billed Heron is sometimes classed as a heron, and sometimes given its own family Cochlearidae, but nowadays it is usually retained in the Ardeidae.

Although herons resemble birds in some other families, such as the storks, ibises and spoonbills, they differ from these in flying with their necks retracted, not outstretched. They are also one of the bird groups that have powder down.

The members of this family are mostly associated with wetlands, and prey on fish, frogs and other aquatic species. Some, like the Cattle Egret and Black-headed Heron, also take large insects, and are less tied to watery environments. Some members of this group nest colonially in trees, others, notably the bitterns, use reedbeds.

In February 2005, the Canadian scientist Dr. Louis Lefebvre announced a method of measuring avian IQ in terms of their innovation in feeding habits. Herons were named among the most intelligent birds based on this scale, reflecting a wide variety, flexibility and adaptiveness to acquire food.

Analyses of the skeleton, mainly the skull, suggested that the Ardeidae could be split into a diurnal and a crepuscular/nocturnal group which included the bitterns. From DNA studies and skeletal analyses focusing more on bones of body and limbs, this grouping has been revealed as incorrect (McCracken & Sheldon 1998). Rather, the similarities in skull morphology reflect convergent evolution to cope with the different challenges of daytime and nighttime feeding. Today, it is believed that three major groups can be distinguished (Sheldon et al. 1995, 2000), which are (from the most primitive to the most advanced):

  • tiger herons and the boatbill
  • bitterns
  • day-herons and egrets, and night-herons

The night herons could warrant separation as subfamily Nycticoracinae, Herons as it was traditionally done. However, the position of some genera (e.g. Butorides or Syrigma) is unclear at the moment, and molecular studies have until now suffered from a small number of studied taxa. Especially the relationship among the ardeine subfamily is very badly resolved. The arrangement presented here should be considered provisional.


  • Subfamily Tigrisomatinae
    • Genus Cochlearius -
      • Boat-billed Heron, Cochlearius cochlearius
    • Genus Tigrisoma
      • Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Tigrisoma mexicanum
      • Fasciated Tiger Heron, Tigrisoma fasciatum
      • Rufescent Tiger Heron, Tigrisoma lineatum
    • Genus Tigriornis
      • White-crested Tiger Heron, Tigriornis leucolophus
    • Genus Zonerodius
      • New Guinea Tiger Heron, Zonerodius heliosylus
  • Subfamily Botaurinae
    • Genus Zebrilus
      • Zigzag Heron, Zebrilus undulatus
    • Genus Ixobrychus - small bitterns (8 living species, 1 recently extinct)
    • Genus Botaurus - large bitterns (4 species)
  • Subfamily Ardeinae
    • Genus Zeltornis (fossil)
    • Genus Nycticorax (2-4 living species, 5 recently extinct; includes Nyctanassa)
    • Genus Gorsachius (3-5 species)
    • Genus Butorides (3 species; sometimes included in Ardea)
    • Genus Agamia - Agami Heron
    • Genus Pilherodius
      • Capped Heron, Pilherodius pileatus
    • Genus Ardeola (6 species)
    • Genus Bubulcus - Cattle Egret (sometimes included in Ardea)
    • Genus Proardea (fossil)
    • Genus Ardea - typical herons (11-17 species)
    • Genus Syrigma
      • Whistling Heron, Syrigma sibilatrix
    • Genus Egretta - typical egrets (7-13 species)
    • Genus undetermined
      • Easter Island Heron, Ardeidae gen. et sp. indet. (prehistoric)

Fossil species of unresolved affiliations:

  • Xenerodiops (Early Oligocene of Fayyum, Egypt)
  • Ardeagradis
  • Calcardea
  • Proardeola - possibly same as Proardea

Other prehistoric and fossil species are included in the respective genus accounts.

Scientific classification

  • Kingdom:    Animalia
  • Phylum:       Chordata
  • Class:         Aves
  • Order:         Ciconiiformes
  • Family:       Ardeidae Leach, 1820

An egret is any of several herons, most of which are white or buff, and several of which develop fine plumes during the breeding season. Many egrets are members of the genera Egretta or Ardea which contain other species named as herons rather than egrets. The distinction between a heron and an egret is rather vague, and depends more on appearance than biology.
Several of the egrets have been moved around from one genus to another in recent years: the Great Egret, for example, has been classified as a member of either Casmerodius, Egretta or Ardea.
In the 19th and early part of the 20th century, some of the world's egret species were endangered by relentless hunting, since hat makers in Europe and the United States demanded massive numbers of egret plumes and breeding birds were killed in locations all around the world.
Several Egretta species, including the Eastern Reef Egret, the Reddish Egret and the Western Reef Egret have two distinct colour, one of which is entirely white. Little Blue Heron has an all-white juvenile plumage.

Species in taxonomic order

  • Great Egret or Great White Egret, Ardea alba
  • Intermediate Egret, Ardea intermedia or Egretta intermedia
  • Cattle Egret, Ardea ibis
  • Little Egret Egretta garzetta
  • Eastern Reef Egret, Egretta sacra
  • Western Reef Egret, Egretta gularis
  • Snowy Egret, Egretta thula
  • Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens
  • Slaty Egret, Egretta vinaceigula
  • Chinese Egret, Egretta eulophotes

Scientific classification

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Ciconiiformes

Family: Ardeidae

  • Genera
  • Egretta
  • Ardea

A classification of wading birds in the heron family Ardeidae. Species named as bitterns tend to be the shorter necked, often more secretive members of this family. Called hæferblæte in Old English, the word bittern came to English from Old French butor, itself from Gallo-roman butitaurus, a portmanteau of latin Latin b
ūtiō and taurus. Bitterns form a monophyletic subfamily in the heron family, the Botaurinae.
Bitterns usually frequent reedbeds and similar marshy areas, and feed on amphibians, reptiles, insects and fish.
Unlike the similar storks, ibises and spoonbills, herons and bitterns fly with their necks retracted, not outstretched.

The genus Ixobrychus contains mainly small species:

  • Little Bittern, Ixobrychus minutus
  • New Zealand Little Bittern, Ixobrychus novaezelandiae (extinct)
  • Cinnamon Bittern, Ixobrychus cinnamomeus
  • Stripe-backed Bittern, Ixobrychus involucris
  • Least Bittern, Ixobrychus exilis
  • Yellow Bittern, Ixobrychus sinensis
  • Schrenck's Bittern, Ixobrychus eurhythmus
  • Dwarf Bittern, Ixobrychus sturmii
  • Black Bittern, Ixobrychus flavicollis

The genus Botaurus is the larger bitterns:

  • American Bittern, Botaurus lentiginosa.
  • Great Bittern or European Bittern, Botaurus stellaris
  • South American Bittern, Botaurus pinnatus
  • Australasian Bittern, Botaurus poiciloptilus
  • Botaurus hibbardi (fossil)

The genus Zebrilus includes only one species:

  • Zigzag Heron (or properly Zigzag Bittern), Zebrilus undulatus

Scientific classification

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Ciconiiformes
  • Family: Ardeidae


  • Ixobrychus Billberg, 1828
  • Botaurus Stephens, 1819


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