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Discover the Unique Behaviors of the Black Heron – Your Guide to Birdwatching Wonder!

Birdwatching is an exciting adventure that has been embraced worldwide due to its unique sense of outdoor exploration and tranquility. One bird species that is worth watching is the Black Heron, Egretta ardesiaca.

Known for its unique feeding technique and striking black color, the Black Heron is a must-see bird for birdwatchers. In this article, we will explore the identification, plumage, and behavior of this bird in detail to help you identify it with ease when you go out birdwatching.


Field Identification

The Black Heron is a medium-sized bird with a height of 55cm-66cm, a weight of 450g-500g, and a wingspan of 90cm-105cm. It has a striking all-black plumage, a long yellow bill, and contrasting yellow eyes.

During flight, the wings appear broad and rounded, and the tail feathers are short and square. The bird has long legs that can vary from dark green to a dark bluish-grey.

The feet are yellow and flat with long toes that can spread widely to enable the bird to balance on mud and other marshy places.

Similar Species

The Black Heron shares a resemblance to other heron species like the Little Egret, Yellow-billed Egret, and the Cattle Egret. The Little Egret has a white plumage, yellow feet, and black bill.

The Yellow-billed Egret has a pale yellow bill, black wing edges, and yellow feet. The Cattle Egret has a white plumage and a pale yellow bill with a red stripe.

However, the Black Heron’s black plumage sets it apart from all these species, making it unique.


The Black Heron has two main molting stages, the breeding, and non-breeding plumages. Adults have a striking black coat throughout the year, with no change for the male and female.

However, juveniles and hatchlings have a brown coat with pale streaks on their bellies.


Breeding plumage occurs during mating season, and the bird’s soft and fluffy plumes extend from the back of the head and along the back. The nuptial plumage is visible during sunsets and early morning when mating rituals take place.

The non-breeding plumage takes over after the mating season, and the plumes disappear, making the bird look like it does during the other parts of the year.


The Black Heron has a unique feeding style that sets it apart from the rest of the species. It prefers dark muddy water, where it can stand on one spot for long and wait for its prey to approach.

Once it spots prey, the bird extends its wings to create a canopy, thus shading the fish from light and creating an opaque fishing hole. The bird then lunges its head forward and catches the fish using its sharp bill.

Once the prey is caught, the Black Heron consumes it on the spot, throwing its head back as it swallows the fish whole.


Watching the Black Heron glide over your head or watch it catch its prey can be quite an exhilarating experience. It is a treasure for enthusiasts who love birdwatching, and we hope that with this article, you can identify this unique bird species with ease.

Systematics History

The systematic history of the Black Heron, Egretta ardesiaca, dates back to the early 19th century when Belgian zoologist, Temminck, first described the species. It belongs to the heron family Ardeidae, which also includes other heron species such as the Great Blue Heron, Little Egret, and Cattle Egret.

Geographic Variation

Geographic variation refers to the differences in physical characteristics that occur amongst individuals of a species across different locations or regions. The Black Heron, as a widespread species, exhibits some degree of geographic variation.


There are three subspecies of the Black Heron recognized by Avibase, a database of bird taxonomy. These include Egretta ardesiaca ardesiaca, Egretta ardesiaca schistacea, and Egretta ardesiaca nigricans.

These subspecies differ in their physical features, which include body size, bill length, and color. Egretta ardesiaca ardesiaca: This subspecies is commonly found in West Africa, ranging from Guinea to the Congo.

It is the largest subspecies, with a longer bill, and darker plumage. Egretta ardesiaca schistacea: This subspecies is found in eastern and southeastern Africa, from Somalia to Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

It has a shorter bill than the ardesiaca subspecies, and its plumage is duller. Egretta ardesiaca nigricans: This subspecies is found in Madagascar and adjacent islands.

It has a shorter bill than the other subspecies, and its plumage is darker.

Related Species

The Black Heron has several related species within its family, the Ardeidae. Some of these species include:

Cattle Egret, Bubulcus ibis: The Cattle Egret is a small, white egret species that is commonly found around livestock, where it feeds on insects stirred up by the animals.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias: The Great Blue Heron is a large heron found across North and Central America. It has blue-grey plumage and a long, S-shaped neck.

Little Egret, Egretta garzetta: The Little Egret is a small white heron that has a black bill and legs. It is found across Europe and Asia.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The Black Heron is a widespread species and is found across many regions in sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar, and the Comoro Islands. There have been changes to the bird’s distribution over the years due to various factors, including habitat loss and climatic changes.

In the early 20th century, the Black Heron had a more extensive distribution range than it does currently. It was commonly found in present-day southern Sudan, southwestern Ethiopia, central and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zambia.

However, the distribution of the species in these regions has diminished, and the bird is now scarce or completely absent in some of them. There have also been reports of range expansions in some regions.

For instance, the Black Heron has extended its distribution range southward in South Africa, probably as a result of climatic changes. Additionally, in Mozambique, there is recent monitoring evidence of an expansion of the bird’s range in the southern part of the country.

Habitat loss is also a significant factor that has affected the Black Heron’s distribution range. Wetlands and marshes are the bird’s preferred habitats, but they are rapidly declining due to activities such as agriculture and urbanization.

As a result, the Black Heron’s population has dwindled in some regions.


The Black Heron is a fascinating bird with a rich history and a unique distribution range. The bird has three subspecies recognized by Avibase, exhibiting differences in their physical features.

The distribution range of the bird has changed over the years due to different factors, including habitat loss and climatic changes. However, the species remains widespread and is a beautiful addition to any birdwatching expedition.


The Black Heron, Egretta ardesiaca, is predominantly found in wetland habitats that have a shallow shoreline, such as marshes, lagoons, swamps, and flooded savannas. The bird prefers shallow water bodies with little or no vegetation and can also be found in rice fields, where it feeds on the aquatic organisms present.

It is a common sight near rivers, streams, small ponds, or artificial water bodies such as water tanks. The Black Heron is tolerant of human disturbance, and it can adapt to man-made environments such as parks, gardens, and golf courses with man-made water features.

In some areas, the bird is known to be attracted to sewage treatment plants where the nutrient-rich water results in a high density of food sources.

Movements and Migration

The Black Heron is a non-migratory bird and has limited movements within its range. The majority of the breeding population remains in one area throughout the year, while some may move locally in search of food, nesting sites, or water.

However, there have been reports of short-distance movements resulting from changes in rainfall patterns. During the breeding season, some individuals may move from dry areas to sites with more substantial rainfall to breed and feed their offspring.

The Black Heron can also travel long distances during non-breeding periods in search of food sources. For example, in South Africa, the bird often moves from its breeding grounds in KwaZulu-Natal to the Eastern Cape, where it feeds on the abundant shrimp populations.

While the Black Heron does not undertake annual migrations like many bird species, it can undergo nomadic movements in response to the availability of food. During the dry season, the bird may relocate to areas with more abundant water sources.

For example, in Zimbabwe, the Black Heron has been observed to move to the Zambezi River during the dry season, which has more extensive floodplains and offers higher densities of fish. The Black Heron has a complex feeding behavior that is thought to influence its movements.

It feeds on a variety of aquatic organisms, including fish, frogs, crustaceans, insects, and mollusks. This broad diet allows the bird to adapt to different water sources depending on the availability of food.


The Black Heron is a non-migratory bird that prefers wetland habitats with shallow water and little or no vegetation. The bird can tolerate human disturbance and can adapt to man-made environments such as parks, gardens, and golf courses.

Although the bird does not undertake annual migrations, it can undergo nomadic movements in response to changes in rainfall patterns and the availability of food. This makes the species fascinating to observe and a valuable addition to any birdwatching expedition.

Diet and Foraging


The Black Heron is a daytime forager and feeds mostly during the early morning and late evening hours. The bird is known for its unique feeding behavior, where it uses its wings to create a large, shaded area on the water surface, providing cover for fish.

The technique is known as canopy feeding and is an adaptation to the bird’s preferred method of hunting.


The Black Heron has a varied diet that includes a wide range of prey items such as fish, crustaceans, mollusks, insects, and occasionally small mammals. Fish makes up the bulk of its diet, which it catches using its sharp beak.

The Black Heron feeds mainly on small fish that measure less than 10cm long.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

The Black Heron, like all birds, is endothermic, meaning it regulates its body temperature internally, thus maintaining a constant body temperature. The bird’s metabolism, heart rate, respiration rate, and circulation adjust according to its bodily needs, enabling it to maintain the temperature required for its body to function.

The Black Heron has a small body mass allowing it to maintain a high metabolic rate required to sustain this endothermic condition. However, the bird has an efficient respiratory system that increases the amount of oxygen delivered to its tissues, making it possible to maintain its high metabolic rate.

Sounds and Vocal



The Black Heron is not particularly vocal; it produces only a few sounds and calls, and these are used primarily to communicate with other members of its species. The bird has three primary vocalizations which include:

Contact call: The contact call is a brief and sharp whistle that is used to communicate with others of its kind at any time of the day.

Courtship call: The courtship call is a short and repetitive croak that is produced by the male during the mating season.

Fledgling call: The fledgling call is a loud, nasal squawk produced by juvenile birds when in distress, calling for their parents, or begging for food.

In addition to these primary calls, the Black Heron can also produce a range of other sounds, including bill clapping, bill snapping, and bill chattering. These sounds are produced by the bird’s bill, which it uses to intimidate other birds or animals that may try to invade its space.


The Black Heron is not particularly vocal and produces only a few sounds, primarily used for communication with other members of its species. The bird has a varied diet that includes fish, crustaceans, mollusks, insects, and occasionally small mammals.

The bird’s unique feeding behavior, canopy feeding, is an adaptation that provides cover for fish, enabling the bird to catch its prey. The Black Heron is endothermic, meaning that it maintains a constant body temperature through internal regulation, allowing it to thrive in various habitats across its range.



The Black Heron is a wading bird and moves through the shallow water by wading, walking, or swimming. The bird has long legs that allow it to move easily through the water while keeping its body dry.

It can also fly, but it is not a strong flier, and it usually flies short distances.


The Black Heron has several behaviors that are essential for its self-maintenance. The bird spends a lot of time preening its feathers, which helps to maintain their quality and cleanliness.

The preening process involves the bird running its feathers through its bill, arranging them, and removing any dirt or debris that may have accumulated. Agonistic


The Black Heron is a territorial bird and can become aggressive towards other individuals that encroach on its space.

The bird uses several agonistic behaviors to deter or drive away invaders, including bill snapping, bill clapping, and wing flapping. Sexual


During the mating season, the male Black Heron advertises its presence to potential mates using a variety of behaviors, including making courtship calls and displaying.

The male spreads its wings and flares its feathers to show off its breeding plumage, which includes elongated plumes that hang from its lower back.


The breeding season for the Black Heron varies depending on the region in which it resides. In southern Africa, the breeding season typically runs from September to February, while in East Africa, breeding occurs during the rainy season, which varies from region to region.

The Black Heron typically lays between two to four eggs with the incubation period lasting 25 to 26 days. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs, with the male taking the night shift and the female the day shift.

Once hatched, both parents take care of the chicks and feed them regurgitated food. The chicks fledge at around five weeks old and become independent at around eight weeks old.

Demography and Populations

The Black Heron is considered a common and widespread bird throughout its range. Although local populations may vary, its global population is estimated to be stable.

The bird’s ability to adapt to human-modified habitats and its tolerance to disturbance has enabled it to thrive in areas such as golf courses and other urbanized settings. However, several threats to the species exist, including habitat destruction, water pollution, and hunting.

The loss of wetlands and the degradation of water quality due to pesticides, sewage discharge, and oil spills pose significant dangers to the Black Heron’s food sources, breeding, and survival. Conservation efforts to protect wetlands and aquatic environments can help ensure the continued survival and protection of the Black Heron and other wetland birds.

These efforts can include the restoration of degraded habitats, preservation of natural wetlands, and management of water resources to reduce pollution.


The Black Heron is a fascinating bird with unique behaviors that enable it to survive in various habitats across its range. The bird’s breeding season, mating behavior, and parental care are remarkable aspects of its life history.

Despite facing several threats, the bird’s ability to adapt to human-modified habitats and its tolerance to disturbance has enabled it to survive reasonably well. By raising awareness and implementing conservation measures, we can ensure the continued survival of this beautiful and iconic bird species.

The Black Heron, Egretta ardesiaca, is a fascinating bird that has adapted to life in wetland habitats across sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar, and the Comoro Islands. The bird’s unique behaviors, such as canopy feeding, parental care, and mating rituals, make it a valuable addition to any birdwatching expedition.

While the bird’s global population is stable, it faces several threats, including habitat loss and degradation, water pollution, and hunting. It is essential that we raise awareness and implement conservation measures to protect this beautiful and iconic species and ensure its continued survival.

By working together, we can preserve the Black Heron and other wetland bird species for future generations to enjoy.

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