Herons and Egrets

Helping the Herons

A State Endangered Species

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Black-Crowned Night Heron chick.
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Night Heron pre-fledglings.

Across the nation people have been inspired by the story of Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk, who took up residency at one of New York City's most posh locations at Central Park.

However, how many Pennsylvanian's know of the unique residency we have right here in the heart of York City?

Kiwanis Lake, an artificial lake created in 1937 at the 13 acre Farquhar Park, is now one of the largest breeding grounds in the Commonwealth for a special heron family.

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Kiwanis Lake, home to a special heron rookery. Notice the Great Egret flying over the lake.

The lusty caterwauling of "kwacks" and "meeps" fill the air in the spring and summer. Curious neighbors in this busy, traffic surrounded community began calling Bird Refuge in 1992 to ask who their mysterious inhabitants were. Who indeed! These were treasures in disguise. The young streaky brown and white young were often dubbed as "tree chickens." Children playing in the park would fancy they heard monkeys in the park.

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Great Egret fledglings' first flights to island at Kiwanis Lake.

It is hard to believe these diamonds in the rough would mature into the handsome plumage of the adult birds. Indeed, we are privileged to have the opportunity to observe their beautiful courtship behavior and rearing of raucous young. In 2007, over 100 nests were counted in this growing nursery. Who would have dreamed it then? Will we treasure our treasure?

Help protect your state "jewels", the black-crowned and yellow-crowned night herons and the great egret, all in the heron family. Each spring dozens of these wading birds return to nest around the large conifers surrounding the Kiwanis Lake area in York, a recently listed Audubon Important Bird Area. They have uniquely chosen this as their "nursery" (rookery) site to raise their young. This location also has the distinction of being the only known colony in Pennsylvania in which all three can be found to nest together.

Why help?

They are listed as a State Endangered Species due to population decline as a result of habitat loss. Being at risk, we should want to respect, protect, and treasure these special jewels. While Bird Refuge is legally equipped to provide care and release for the birds, we need caring individuals like you to make an investment in helping us preserve these treasures for the future - an investment that we trust will provide rewarding dividends.

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How can you help?

Bird Refuge is in need of funding and resources to facilitate the growing numbers of these herons/egrets in our care. We're asking that you consider a generous donation which will go for rehabilitative care. Most of the other types of birds that enter Bird Refuge are brought in to us by concerned citizens who may leave donations for their care. However, the herons rarely bring in any donations because of their location in the city. Bird Refuge volunteers monitor the park on a daily basis once the eggs hatch. Therefore, we are usually the finders of the majority of the injured birds. Because they are fish eaters, cost for their care is very expensive. Together, we can make a difference.

Help by Observing

One of the common problems that younger birds encounter is falls from the nest. Because of their larger size, many people mistake them for birds like ducks or geese and assume that they are being tended to. But falling from such a height leads to massive injuries such as fractures and internal bleeding. Rapid response to an accident is vital to their survival. Any heron or egret found sitting, laying or even walking on the ground that does not fly away from you when gently approached needs rescue. If you find a small, fluff-covered heron/egret chick or a larger immature bird that appears sick or injured you can provide assistance by calling us immediately to report the problem and give the location. Their body size, not including their head, neck or legs can range from the size of a fist to the size of a duck. They just increase in size until they reach their full growth and are able to fly. Egrets will be feathered like the adult but night herons will not.

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Black Crown Night Heron fledglings foraging for what quickly becomes an expensive diet of fish.
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Notice the heron has captured prey (fish).
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This fist sized Black crown night heron chick will increase in size for five weeks before being ready to fly.

Help by Rescue

Rescue is simple. Contact us locally or find a licensed rehabber nearest to your location. Do not attempt to chase down the bird for capture. If there are fractures or internal injuries, chasing will worsen the injuries and must be done by experts. Even small, weak chicks instinctively strike out towards your eyes to protect themselves which may cause serious injury to you. Because they are endangered, you do not want to tamper in any way with the birds. When you call, if you get the voice mail, leave a message immediately. We may be doing care rounds with other birds but will respond quickly to the call. If necessary, we may call you back for more information or, if we are able, we may leave immediately and head over without calling back. Leave this information:

  • Where you spotted the injured bird? Try to indicate what section of the park the bird is sitting.
  • What seems to be wrong or how the bird is behaving? (Fishing line attached? Dragging a wing or limping? Laying down or sitting?)
  • Are people hanging around the bird or around the area?
  • Your name and phone number so we can return a call to you if we need more information. Depending on your description, we may ask you to stay nearby to keep a watch if you are able. You may be able to keep other people from disturbing the bird further. At times children have been observed throwing rocks or poking sticks. You can help protect the distressed bird from further trauma. Don't panic or interfere (including feeding food such as bread) while you wait for a call back. Most responses will be well under an hour. During the heaviest part of the nesting season, we may monitor the park as often as three times a day.
  • If you find a dead heron chick, please do not move it or handle it. We keep records on all the bodies we find to determine age, types of injuries, and cause of death.
Help with Resources

We need live minnows, small fish, tadpoles, crickets, mealworms, etc. if you have connections for fresh, safe sources. We are also in need of pine straw for the flooring of the flight and various maintenance supplies.

Help their Future

Did you know that herons were slaughtered for their plumage, used to decorate women's hats in the early 19th Century? The damage was so intense that in 1917, egrets were expected to become extinct despite measures taken to help protect them. After making a comeback, declines noted in late 60's were attributed to DDT use. Today, the largest impact to the survival of the species is loss of wetland habitat.

  • Report sightings of injured birds immediately
  • Report any violations or abuse of any of the birds to the PA Game Commission for your region. For York, call the Southeast Region at 1-610-926-3136.
  • Clean-up sites safely: fishing line and tackle have seriously injured a number of the birds
  • Please discard any trash or such items into the provided trash receptacles to help save a life.
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    While larger, these Black crowned night herons still cannot fly and the fluffed bird is starving.

  • Educate others: let others know about the special treasures to be found at Kiwanis Lake and how they can help by keeping out a watchful eye.
  • Volunteer to become a park monitor or provide much needed financial support.

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The Heron Family

Herons are wading birds with long, slender legs and feet, long necks, and long sword-like tapered beaks. In flight, their neck is curved in an "S-shape" and their legs extend straight behind them. There are many species of birds in this family (Ardeidae) which include egrets and bitterns. Bird Refuge has worked with the great blue heron, green heron, black-crowned night heron, great egret, snowy egret, and least bittern. In the early 19th Century herons were slaughtered, almost to the point of extinction, for their beautiful breeding plumage which was used to adorn women's hats. Having made a comeback, they continued to face major challenges throughout the years worldwide. Today, their greatest threat is the loss of habitat.

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Great Egret chick that is feathered like an adult but still much smaller.
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An adult Green Heron that swallowed baited fish hook. Visible on x-ray.
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Great Blue Heron.
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Great Egret fledgling released at Kiwanis Lake after recovering from a fractured leg.


Many feed largely upon fish but their diet includes mice, small birds, crickets, pond insects, frogs and tadpoles, crayfish, snakes, and other prey. When hunting , they often wade into the water and "freeze" as they await prey to come into range or they may slowly stalk their prey. While several species of heron may be in the same territory, they have different feeding patterns that keep them from competing. The great blue tends to wade into deeper water, the green may wait right on the edge or on a low limb, egrets will go for fish closer to the shore or in surrounding flooded fields, while the night herons will hunt in the early morning or late evenings in the shallows.

During the breeding season males become aggressive and defend small territories. While they engage in fights they rarely hurt one another. Elaborate courtship displays, erecting breeding plumage, and bright coloration on the lores (bare skin around the eyes), the legs and bill occur. Some species nest in colonies (called rookeries), while others are solitary nesters. They may also nest in mixed colonies such as at Kiwanis Lake.

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Heron Happenings
  • In 1992, black-crowned night heron was discovered nesting at Kiwanis Lake in York City.
  • Yellow-crowned night heron pair nested at Kiwanis Lake.
  • In 2000, a great egret, and yellow-crowned night heron nest was discovered among the black-crowned night heron colony at Kiwanis Lake.
  • Great egret pair first nested May 26, 2000 but by June 12 nest was damaged and abandoned. Yellow-crowned night heron pair also nested. The egret was observed to have snatched a black-crowned night heron from the nest for dinner.
  • During the breeding season of 2004, there were well over 40 black-crowned night heron nests surveyed (numbers were believed to be at least double the above amount however were not documented), three great egret nests, and 1 yellow-crowned night heron nest.
  • Kiwanis Lake is currently the only known area in Pennsylvania where all three of these species nest together.
  • Kiwanis Lake is currently only one of the two areas in Pennsylvania where the great egret is known to nest.
  • In 2006, the nest count was around 97 which included five great egret nests. IN 2007 the count increased to 121+, remaining there until 2010 when the number decreased below 100.

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Heron Habits:

Great Egret

Ardea alba

This is a stately large, slender white feathered heron with a long, thick, sharp yellow bill (orange while breeding with greenish lores), black legs and feet. In January, both sexes display nuptial plumage up to four feet in length that flows from their back down to their tail. These plumes are lost over the summer. Immatures look like nonbreeding adults. They were once heavily hunted (95% population destroyed) and killed for these plumes to be used on women's hats.


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Great egret adult standing guard at rookery.
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Great Egret chick fallen from nest

  • Length: From beak to tip of tail, adults range from 37 to 41 inches, standing three feet tall. The wingspan is just under five feet.
  • Weight: Right around 2 lb. (32-40 oz.); a very light weight for its proportions
  • Status: PA Endangered Species
  • Habitat: Marshes, ponds, shores, medium flats, shallow rivers, flooded fields. Nests will be found in nearby trees or shrubs among other colony nesters (more than one nest per tree), often on islands.
  • Call: As elegant as these birds appear, it may be surprising to hear their coarse, croaky vocalization when disturbed. Young emit a "meep-meep" type vocalization when begging for food.
  • Diet: minnows, frogs, snakes, crayfish, crickets, mice, moles, snails. Prey is patiently stalked.
  • Nesting: In PA, the significantly larger great egret population is at Wade Island in Harrisburg. The only other known rookery for the great egret is at Kiwanis Lake in York City, a small but growing population. The egrets became a part of this rookery in 2000. It is at this site where they may be easily viewed as they court, build their nests and raise their young. Here at Kiwanis, when the birds return around mid-March, the male selects the nesting site from among the conifers surrounding the lake. He forms a two-foot flimsy platform of sticks and twigs with little or no lining in the selected tree 10-50 ft. high. (It's actually possible with some nests to count the hatched nestling from beneath!) He then selects his mate and after a courtship ritual (a dazzling display of the nuptial plumage) and mating, the female lays 3-4 pale bluish green oval eggs. After 23-28 days, the eggs hatch into fluff covered semi-altricial nestlings that are identifiable as miniature versions of the parents. Both parents are very attentive in their care of their young and defense of their territory. By around four weeks, the young began to clamber about the nest and wing flap in preparation of flying. By six weeks most are ready to fledge (fly). It takes about three years to reach maturity.
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    Adult egret bringing nesting material to build nest.
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    A scanty stick nest with egret chicks.

  • Common Threats: In PA, loss of habitat is a major factor in the decline of the population. They must have shallow water to feed from but key locations have been flooded out by dams. Water pollution kills off important prey that they need to feed their young. Because of the low population, Bird Refuge has cared for only a small number of egrets due to nest falls (severe fractures and internal injuries) and fishing line ensnarement.

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron [YCNH]

(Nycticorax violaceus)

This bird is closely related to the black-crowned night heron with several noted differences. It has a yellowish patch on its head (hence, yellow-crowned) and yellow plumes (may appear white) that extend from the crown during breeding season. It also sports a white auricular (extends to the ear from below the eye) stripe on its black head. It has slightly longer legs than the BCNH and the entire foot will extend beyond wing in flight. Immatures are similar to BCNH but are more finely spotted and streaked with buff. Their beak is slightly thicker. They also take about 3 years to reach adult coloring.

  • Length: 22-27" with a wingspan of 44"
  • Weight: 1.5 lb
  • Status: PA Endangered Species
  • Habitat: Wooded swamp, shallow streams, coastal thicket. This species of heron is more secretive in its nesting habits and more sensitive to disturbances. They tend to nest in small groups. They are rare in this state (PA).
  • Call: Similar to the "kwack" of the black-crowned night heron but higher pitched.
  • Diet: Mainly crayfish, minnows, aquatic insects, frogs. Crayfish remains will be found in abundance beneath their nesting site. Water quality is a key issue. Crayfish will be at poor levels if the water quality is down, resulting in restricted food sources. As a night heron they feed mostly at night, except during breeding season when chicks must be fed constantly.
  • Nesting: The pairs return in early April and begin courtship much like the black-crowned night heron
  • Common Threats: A pair first began nesting at Kiwanis Lake in 1999. Habitat disturbance and loss remain the greatest threat. The largest known colony in PA represented half the known population but a dam resulted in disbandment of the population. Dams change the quality of the water and water levels. Their primary food source is the crayfish which thrive only in shallow, healthy water.

Black-Crowned Night Heron [BCNH]

(Nycticorax nycticorax)

This is a handsome, stocky built medium sized heron with a shorter neck and legs than other herons. The adult has a black crown and back (two or more white, six inch plumes extend from the black crown during breeding season); pearl grey wings, rump and tail; and a creamy to pale grey underparts. The bill is black and rather thick, legs are yellowish green (becoming pinkish at peak breeding season), and the eyes are red. Chicks and immatures are grey- brown streaked with buff and white with large white spots on the tips. They gradually acquire adult plumage over three years, losing spots and stripes and gaining face, body, and eye coloring.


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Black-Crowned Night Heron parent.

  • Length: They are 20 inches long, standing 1 1/2 feet tall with about a four foot wingspread.
  • Weight: 1.5 lb.
  • Status: PA Endangered Species
  • Habitat: Most colonies are linked to wetlands but being adaptive, the habitat varies. (They have been known to nest in cacti or cave entrances in the SW.) Streams, lakes, marshes, swamps whether brackish, saltwater or fresh, may be utilized. Nests will be found in nearby shrubs, trees, and even city parks such as Kiwanis Lake.
  • Call: Their Latin name, nycticorax or "night raven" refers to their harsh, raven-like croaking or barking sounds, particularly at night. Nestlings vocalize with hoarse, croaky "Kwack, kwack, kwack" or loud caterwauling during feeding.
  • Diet: They will dine mostly on fish but frogs, invertebrates, insects, small birds or even carrion will be taken. They prefer to feed in shallow waters during the early morning or evening, stalking their prey and then clamping down on prey with their razor sharp beaks. Prey is then swallowed down whole.
  • Nesting at Kiwanis Lake: In PA, the Kiwanis Lake rookery first became active in 1992. This rookery has grown through the years and with over BCNH 100 nests in 2007, it may have reached numbers equal to BCNH nests at Wade Island in Harrisburg. (Populations appear to be declining at other formerly established BCNH sites.) The night herons arrive in York around mid-March to begin courtship and remain through mid-August. What a show will be in store during this time period. Males become aggressive as they begin to pair bond. They crouch and walk in a circle with the head lowered as they snap their bill together or hold a twig. Then, they will stretch out the neck and bob. When the head is lowered to the feet, a peculiar "song" is vocalized. Between songs, the twig may be shaken. When a female approaches, she is initially rejected, then allowed into his territory to join in the display. Both may erect breast feathers and the head plumes. At this point they will preen one another and begin billing (clacking their bills together).
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    Adult Black-Crowned Night Heron foraging on the ground at a rookery.

    It is thought that they stay with one mate. Pairs may nest close together with multiple nests in one tree. The male begins to build or refurbish a nest, forming a shallow saucer of sticks and pine twigs in the trees surrounding the lake. He collects and presents his offerings to his mate who then works them into the nest which is completed in 2-5 days. Three to four eggs are laid at 2 day intervals. The oval eggs are at the greenest on day one and then fade to a pale greenish-blue. Both parents incubate the eggs, beginning from day one. The eggs hatch within 24-26 days, each days apart resulting in a big age gap.
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    Night Heron chicks that are too young to fly climb branches above their nest.

    Feeding time is a raucous, competitive affair. The young start clambering out of nests after 2 weeks. At 3 weeks they may venture to different branches, especially if disturbed. But they don't actually reach flight ability until their sixth week, initially only flying low to the ground until they gain experience and strength. By mid-August, most have fledged and move outside of rookery.
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    Eggshells on ground indicate a recent hatch.
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    Broken egg resulting from nest disruption by an intruder.
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    Fallen nest of the Night Heron. Notice the chick carcass and whitewash from feces.

  • Common Threats: BCNH are a more social bird, roosting communally at winter and mixing with other species of herons. While located around numerous bodies of water such as Willis Run, Codorus Creek and Mill Creek; Kiwanis Lake is anything but a serene location. As the years pass, the birds must tolerate vehicular traffic, park pedestrians who walk directly beneath their nests, summer outdoor movies, summer fests, firework displays and noise from the nearby stadium, colored night lights over the lake, dogs off leash, lawn mowing, fishing activity, and construction. That does not include the natural threats such as crow predation, invasion of cormorants and such. As the egret population grows, BCNH are being forced to spread out from their previous territory to make room. In the past few years, they have adapted to nesting in smaller conifers and even into deciduous trees over their favored larger conifers. Many of the older trees are dying and several dead trees have been cut down. Graffiti marks several of trees once favored for nesting. Litter, fishing line and tackle pose a danger for birds that ingest the trash or become entangled in line causing serious injuries. Birds have been harassed by young adults, teens or children who scream, throw sticks and stones, or chase after them on foot or bike. All of the BCNH that have entered Bird Refuge have been chicks or immatures. The majority of the birds have been seriously injured from nest falls, while other incidents involve fishing line and road accidents.
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    Hungry Night Heron chicks beg parent to regurgitate feeding.

    The major threat to these birds is loss of habitat.


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Six week old Black Crown Night Heron fledglings at release.
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Release of a Black Crown Night Heron fledgling.

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