11 Types Of HERONS In Illinois (ID Guide With Photos)

Did you recently come across a heron in the state of Illinois, and want to know what species it was?

Identifying herons in the Prairie State is not as easy as it might seem, since there are many heron species in Illinois (as well as closely related egrets and bitterns).

To help you identify the bird you saw, we’ll cover the most common herons of Illinois in this article.

Types of herons found in Illinois

What are the types of herons in Illinois?

The 9 types of herons found in Illinois are:

  • Great Blue Heron
  • Green Heron
  • Black-crowned Night-heron
  • American Bittern
  • Least Bittern
  • Great Egret
  • Snowy Egret
  • Cattle Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

While some of these herons are year round residents of Illinois, others are summer visitors in the state during the breeding season

Finally, some are scarce vagrants that are rarely seen in the state (more on that below).

Now let’s dive into the details, and take a closer look at each of these Illinois herons:

Great Blue Heron

Scientific name: Ardea herodias

Photo of Great Blue Heron

With a wingspan of up to 6 feet, this heron is one of Illinois’s largest birds. It is almost entirely blue gray, except for a white throat and eye stripe, as well as dark gray wing feathers. 

Great Blue Herons can be found in many wetland habitats. You can find them in both saltwater and freshwater marshes, flooded fields, mangrove swamps, and lake shorelines.

This enormous blue bird likes to hunt for small fish by wading in the shallows of estuaries, mud flats and marshes along the seaboard.

This heron spends a lot of time standing motionless in shallow water, where it waits patiently for a suitably sized fish to come close enough to be grabbed with its long, yellow bill.

The Great Blue Heron is the most common heron found in Illinois, where it can be seen year round.

Green Heron 

Scientific name: Butorides virescens

Photo of Green Heron

The Green Heron is relatively common in Illinois. It’s a medium-sized heron with an olive-green body and black wings.

These herons tend to live near water, so they’re often seen around lakes, rivers, ponds, or even swimming pools.

They eat fish, frogs, snails, small reptiles, amphibians, and crustaceans. They nest in trees or shrubs but sometimes build their nests on islands.

The Green Heron is usually silent except at dusk or dawn, when it makes its characteristic call, which sounds like “kreee.”

Green Herons usually build their nests out of thin twigs, and place them in the crowns of large trees close to water.

However, if suitable nesting trees are not available, they can also nest on the ground, usually underneath a bush.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Scientific name: Nycticorax nycticorax

Photo of adult Black-crowned Night-heron

The Black-crowned Night-Heron is true to its name, and is most active at dusk and during the night, when it forages for frogs and small fish in Illinois wetlands.

Black-crowned night-herons are a threatened species in Illinois, and are encountered as breeding birds in northern and western Illinois, but can also be found wintering in east Illinois.

These herons can be hard to spot during the day, unless you find their day-time hiding spots.

Another great distinguishing feature of this night bird in Illinois are its loud squawking bird sounds, which it utters at dusk when it flies out from its roost.

The mating season is marked by a change in appearance of this heron, with the black color of the head and back transforming into a glossy greenish blue.

In addition, the lores become black, while their feet take on a pink or crimson hue.

Black-crowned Night Herons are social birds, and usually nest in colonies that share the same nesting tree.

Related: The black birds of Illinois

American Bittern

Scientific name: Botaurus lentiginosus

Photo of American Bittern

American Bitterns are small herons that live in marshes and swamps, and are extremely well camouflaged to blend in with aquatic vegetation.

They can blend in with the reeds surrounding them thanks to their mottled brown color, as well as the way they hold their heads pointed upwards while remaining still amid the reeds.

Bitterns have a neck that is similar in length to the rest of their body, which they use to catch small fish and other animals in shallow water.

Since these water birds are very secretive, the best way to identify a bittern is by its call, which sounds similar to “oonk-ka-oonk.”

American Bitterns eat a wide variety of aquatic organisms, including fish, crabs, insects, frogs, and small rodents.

They wait patiently in the reeds for their prey to approach before making a swift, quiet dash forward to catch it in their bills.

These small herons are an endangered species in Illinois. They are summer breeding visitors wherever there are suitable habitats in the state.

Least Bittern

Scientific name: Ixobrychus exilis

Photo of Least Bittern

The Least Bittern is hard to spot, since it usually remains hidden in dense reed beds. The best way to identify one of these herons is by its coo-coo-coo call.

If you do get your eyes on a Least Bittern, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by their attractive chestnut orange and black color.

The best places to see these herons are marshes and wetlands with dense vegetation, where they can be observed hunting at the edges of open water. 

These bitterns are most active at dawn and at dusk, when they can also be seen flying to and from their roosting trees.

Least Bitterns feed on fish, amphibians, molluscs, insects, and even rodents..

They forage by grasping individual reeds with their claws while waiting for small aquatic animals to pass by in the water underneath them.

Least Bitterns perch on the reeds and bend their bodies in all sorts of ways to reach their meal floating below.

They are regular breeding birds and summer visitors in the state of Illinois.

Great Egret

Scientific name: Ardea alba

Photo of Great Egret

While the Great Egret is a rare breeding bird in Illinois, it is more often observed in the state outside of the breeding season, and especially during fall migration.

This bird is almost entirely white, except for its long, black legs and yellow beak.

During the spring and summer breeding seasons, the Great Egret grows a long white plume on its back that extends all the way to the tip of its tail.

This heron lives in both fresh and saltwater habitats, and often nests in large colonies on the shores of marshes, lakes, and rivers.

Great Egrets forage in any type of shallow water, including ponds, lakes, rivers, estuaries, as well as rice fields and other flooded areas.

In areas with shallow water, you can observe Great Egrets waiting patiently for their prey before striking with their long beak and spearing it.

Great Egrets build their nests in colonies. Most of the time, they are built high up in mature trees, often on islands, to keep ground predators from getting to the eggs.

This bird is especially prevalent in the western and southern regions of the state. Outside of the breeding season it can be seen in large flocks.

Snowy Egret

Scientific name: Egretta thula

Photo of Snowy Egret

The Snowy Egret is another bird with extensive white plumage that doesn’t breed in Illinois, but that can be regularly observed during fall migration.

This little white heron stands out due to its slim black bill and bright area between the eyes and nostrils.

In adult birds, the legs are totally black, which contrasts with their yellow feet. It is thought that the brightly colored feet help to attract small fish and other prey.

The legs of juvenile birds have a predominant greenish yellow color, with some black areas on the front of the leg.

This bird is found in practically all types of wetland environments, from small ponds to saltwater shorelines and everything in between.

Snowy Egrets feed on fish, crabs, snails, amphibians, and crayfish, which they find in shallow water.

These herons either remain completely still and wait for prey to approach, or they stir up the water with their feet to flush out prey to the surface.

Their nests can be found in trees or hidden among ground-level bushes. The female lays 3 to 6 eggs, which are subsequently incubated by both the male and female.

During the summer, the Snowy Egret is very rare in Illinois, but is more commonly observed in the state during the months after the breeding season, due to post-breeding dispersal.

Fun fact: Snowy Egrets readily hybridize with other species of herons, including Cattle Egrets, Tricolored Herons, and Little Blue Herons.

Needless to say, identifying hybrids is very challenging, but fortunately they occur relatively rarely.

Cattle Egret

Scientific name: Bubulcus ibis

Photo of Cattle Egret

Smaller than Great Egrets, Cattle Egrets have shorter necks and are mostly white with streaks of brownish orange on the head, throat, and back.

The Cattle Egret is a relatively new species in the New World that originated in Europe and Africa.

Nobody knows how these herons crossed the Atlantic, but they were first discovered breeding in Brazil, and later in the southern USA.

Cattle Egrets have been very successful at colonizing the Americas, and are common breeding birds all over the southern states. 

In contrast to other egrets and herons, Cattle Egrets regularly forage in dry habitats, including high altitude areas.

This is a small egret that is entirely white, except for the breeding season, when adults develop orange plumage on the back of their head, back, and chest.

The legs and the beak are yellow, but at the peak of the breeding season, these herons take on a ruddy hue. 

It inhabits a wide range of wetland ecosystems, ranging from shallow saltwater zones to freshwater ponds, swamps, and lakes.

In addition to wetlands, the Cattle Egret also does a significant amount of its foraging in dry areas, such as pastures, where it likes to follow cattle and feed on the insects disturbed by the livestock.

Similar to other egret species, the Cattle Egret can be observed in Illinois during the post-breeding dispersal phase, where individuals can often be seen far north of their breeding range.

Little Blue Heron

Scientific name: Egretta caerulea

Photo of Little Blue Heron adult

While adult Little Blue Herons are slate blue, young birds are entirely white during their first year. 

Juvenile Little Blue Herons can be distinguished from other white herons by their dark bill and green legs.

These small herons are rare breeding birds in southern Illinois that can be encountered in the state during the summer.

During fall, their numbers further swell, due to an influx of birds from other states, which visit Illinois on their way to their wintering grounds.

These herons feed on small fish, mollusks and crustaceans, with crayfish forming a large part of their diet.

They prefer aquatic habitats, where these birds hunt in the shallows, and they are rarely seen away from water.

Little Blue Herons build their nests out of sticks and in colonies. The female lays 4 to 6 eggs, and both parents take turns incubating the eggs for up to 25 days.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Scientific name: Nyctanassa violacea

Photo of Yellow-crowned Night-Heron adult

The Yellow-crowned Night Heron is not quite as nocturnal as its Black-crowned relative, and can be seen foraging both during the day and the night.

These herons are breeding birds in several parts of Illinois, and are also encountered throughout the state during migration season.

While crustaceans make up the bulk of the Yellow-crowned Night-Herons’ diet, they also eat fish, insects, snails, reptiles, amphibians, and rodents. 

They are migratory birds that spend the winter in Central America and the Caribbean. 

Do herons stay in Illinois in the winter?

The only heron species that stay in Illinois during winter are Great Blue Herons and Black-crowned Night Herons.

All other heron species migrate south in fall and spend the winter in southern US states or in Central America.


And there we have the herons found in the state of Illinois.

The varied habitats of Illinois are home to more than 450 different species of birds, and herons make up a significant proportion of this rich avifauna.

Including herons, egrets and bitterns, these birds play a vital role in the ecology of their habitats.

If you enjoyed this article, check out our guide to the common birds of Illinois.

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