Ardeidae – Herons, Egrets & Bitterns

Rufescent Tiger Heron Tigrisoma lineatum ©Craig Brelsford Website

Ardeidae are long-legged freshwater and coastal birds. According to the IOC there are 66 (64 to 67 species recognised (by different authorities) in this family variously called called ‘egrets’ or ‘bitterns’, ‘herons’ and ‘night-herons’.

Within the family, all members of the genera Botaurus and Ixobrychus are referred to as ‘bitterns’, 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 and/or have decorative plumes. Although egrets have the same build as the larger herons, they tend to be smaller.

The classification of the individual heron/egret species is fraught with difficulty, and there is still no clear consensus about the correct 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. However, one species formerly considered to constitute a separate monotypic family Cochlearidae, the Boat-billed Heron, is now regarded as a member of the Ardeidae.

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

Some members of this group nest (and often roost) colonially in trees, often in mixed species colonies; others, notably the bitterns, use reedbeds.

The familly Ardeidae contains herons, egrets and bitterns. The 66 species recognised by the IOC are:

Forest Bittern Zonerodius heliosylus

White-crested Tiger Heron Tigriornis leucolopha

Rufescent Tiger Heron Tigrisoma lineatum
Fasciated Tiger Heron Tigrisoma fasciatum
Bare-throated Tiger Heron Tigrisoma mexicanum

Agami Heron Agamia agami

Boat-billed Heron Cochlearius cochlearius

Zigzag Heron Zebrilus undulatus

Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris
Australasian Bittern Botaurus poiciloptilus
American Bittern Botaurus lentiginosus
Pinnated Bittern Botaurus pinnatus

Stripe-backed Bittern Ixobrychus involucris
Least Bittern Ixobrychus exilis
Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus
Black-backed Bittern Ixobrychus dubius
Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis
Von Schrenck’s Bittern Ixobrychus eurhythmus
Cinnamon Bittern Ixobrychus cinnamomeus
Dwarf Bittern Ixobrychus sturmii

Black Bittern Dupetor flavicollis

White-eared Night Heron Gorsachius magnificus
Japanese Night Heron Gorsachius goisagi
Malayan Night Heron Gorsachius melanolophus
White-backed Night Heron Gorsachius leuconotus

Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Nankeen Night Heron Nycticorax caledonicus

Yellow-crowned Night Heron Nyctanassa violacea

Green Heron Butorides virescens
Lava Heron Butorides sundevalli
Striated Heron Butorides striata

Squacco Heron Ardeola ralloides
Indian Pond Heron Ardeola grayii
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus
Javan Pond Heron Ardeola speciosa
Malagasy Pond Heron Ardeola idae
Rufous-bellied Heron Ardeola rufiventris

Western Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
Eastern Cattle Egret Bubulcus coromandus

Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Cocoi Heron Ardea cocoi
White-necked Heron Ardea pacifica
Black-headed Heron Ardea melanocephala
Humblot’s Heron Ardea humbloti
White-bellied Heron Ardea insignis
Great-billed Heron Ardea sumatrana
Goliath Heron Ardea goliath
Purple Heron Ardea purpurea
Great Egret Ardea alba
Intermediate Egret Ardea intermedia

Capped Heron Pilherodius pileatus

Whistling Heron Syrigma sibilatrix

Pied Heron Egretta picata
White-faced Heron Egretta novaehollandiae
Reddish Egret Egretta rufescens
Black Heron Egretta ardesiaca
Slaty Egret Egretta vinaceigula
Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor
Little Blue Heron Egretta caerulea
Snowy Egret Egretta thula
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
Western Reef Heron Egretta gularis
Dimorphic Egret Egretta dimorpha
Pacific Reef Heron Egretta sacra
Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes

Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 66

Useful Reading
  • Shorebirds

    Shorebirds (WorldLife Library) by Des Thimpson, Ingvar Byrkjedal 2001 ISBN: 1841070750 Buy this book from
  • The Herons

    by James A Kushlan & James A Hancock [Illustrated by David Thelwell] OUP 2005 ISBN: 0198549814 Buy this book from
  • The Herons Handbook

    by James Hancock and James Kushlan Paintings by Robert Gillmor and Peter Hayman - Groom Helm 1984 ISBN: 0709937164 Buy this book from
  • Western Atlantic Shorebird Association

    The first research project to be part of WASA is the International Banding Project which is being led by Professor Allan Baker, Canada and Patricia M. Gonz

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