Yellow-crowned night-heron -- 黄冠夜鹭 (Nyctanassa violacea)

Yellow-crowned night-heron
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST

Top facts

  • The yellow-crowned night-heron grows long white feathers from the crown of the head during the breeding season.
  • In Bermuda, the yellow-crowned night-heron was once classified as locally extinct, until a reintroduction programme re-established a wild population.
  • The six different subspecies of the yellow-crowned night-heron all differ in their appearance and distribution.
  • Only one subspecies of yellow-crowned night-heron is migratory, while the others remain in the same area year-round.
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Yellow-crowned night-heron fact file

Yellow-crowned night-heron description

GenusNyctanassa (1)

The unmistakable yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) is a medium-sized (3) (4) (5) (6), short-legged wading bird (6). Its plumage is mostly light blue-grey, apart from the light-edged black feathers on its back, shoulders and wings, which give these areas a scaled appearance (4). The head is mostly black, apart from the yellow-white crown (6), a white patch on each cheek (3) (4) (6) and a white stripe underneath the eyes (5) (6). The eyes are red and the short, stout bill is black (6).

During the breeding season, the yellow legs of the adult yellow-crowned night-heron become pink-red (6), and several long, white feathers are grown from the crown (5) (6). The crown of the adult becomes less yellow throughout this period (2).

The female yellow-crowned night-heron is similar in appearance to the male, although it is slightly smaller (4). The plumage of the juvenile is mostly brown, with a buff-white spotted pattern on the back and wings, and white and brown streaking on the underparts (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). The crown, sides of the head and neck are also streaked with buff-white (5). The bill of the juvenile is black (3) and the legs are light green (5). The adult plumage is usually attained at around two years of age (6).

The calls of the yellow-crowned night-heron include a loud, harsh ‘squawk(3), as well as a harsh ‘whoc’, which is usually used when the bird has been disturbed (6).

There are six subspecies of yellow-crowned night-heron (2) (4) (5), which all differ in their distribution, migration patterns, size and plumage (2).

Also known as
yellow-crowned night heron.
Length: 51 - 70 cm (2)
Wingspan: 101 - 112 cm (2)
650 - 800 g (3) (4)

Yellow-crowned night-heron biology

Crustaceans are the main component of the yellow-crowned night-heron’s diet (2) (3), which includes marsh, mud, swimming, land and beach crabs, as well as crayfish, fish, aquatic invertebrates, mussels and leeches. In drier areas, this species may also take terrestrial arthropods, lizards, small snakes (2), mice, rabbits and young birds (3). Hunting is usually done individually (3), with most activity occurring during the night, or at dusk and dawn (2), especially during the breeding season (4). This species forages by slowly stalking its prey until it is close enough to attack. The individual will lunge towards its prey and capture it within the bill, consequently swallowing it whole, or shaking, crushing or spearing it into smaller pieces (3) (4). The shape and size of the bill varies between each subspecies, and it has been suggested that different populations have evolved their specific characteristics due to the prey availability within their habitat (2).   

The courting routine of the male yellow-crowned night-heron involves display flights and neck stretching, which a receptive female may copy (3). Once the pair bond is formed it is thought to last for one breeding season (4).

In the northern parts of its range, the female yellow-crowned night-heron lays eggs between March and June, while eggs are laid later in the year in the south, usually between August and October. Small colonies of nesting birds are common, although this species may also nest alone. The nest is usually built in a bush or tree. The outer layer of the nest is made of sticks, and lined inside with thin twigs, roots, grass or leaves (2). Both sexes contribute to the construction of the nest, with the female staying on the nest site while the male collects sticks (3) (4). As the nest is nearing completion, the female also gathers sticks (4), which are usually taken directly from trees, rather than from the ground (3) (4). The nest is generally complete after around 11 days, and between 2 and 8 eggs are laid by the female shortly afterwards. Females from northern populations generally have a larger clutch than those in the south (3). Both sexes incubate the eggs (3), which hatch after 21 to 25 days (2). Once the eggs have hatched, the male and female share brooding responsibilities (4). The young fledge the nest around 25 days after hatching (2).

All subspecies of the yellow-crowned night-heron are sedentary, except for the nominate subspecies. Nyctanassa violacea violacea migrates from its northern breeding grounds in September to overwinter in Central America and the Caribbean, returning to the north to breed in March (2).


Yellow-crowned night-heron range

The yellow-crowned night-heron is found in the central United States, as well as coastal areas of the eastern United States, Central America and northern South America. This species also occurs around the Caribbean and Galapagos Islands (4) (5) (7).


Yellow-crowned night-heron habitat

The yellow-crowned night heron inhabits coastal areas including mangroves, barrier beaches (3) (4), rocky coasts and tidal mudflats (2). It can also be found around inland wetlands such as swamps, lakes, rivers, lagoons and marshes. In certain parts of its range this species can be found at elevations of up to 800 metres (2).


Yellow-crowned night-heron status

The yellow-crowned night-heron is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern


Yellow-crowned night-heron threats

As with many wetland birds, the wild population of the yellow-crowned night-heron is threatened by habitat loss and degradation (3). This species is hunted in certain parts of its range, and is considered a delicacy in some cultures (3) (4). In urban areas, many mortalities are caused by individuals colliding with television towers and telephone wires (4).


Yellow-crowned night-heron conservation

The yellow-crowned night-heron is listed as endangered in Indiana and threatened in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Kentucky. It is also listed as a Species of Special Concern in Virginia and Connecticut. An education programme was started in Virginia in 1987 due to the large amount of conflict between humans and individuals of this species (4).

The yellow-crowned night-heron was once classified as locally extinct in Bermuda, but a successful reintroduction programme has since resulted in the establishment of a healthy, self-sustaining population (4).


Find out more

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A major grouping of animals that includes crustaceans, insects and arachnids. All arthropods have paired jointed limbs and a hard external skeleton (exoskeleton).
Diverse group of animals with jointed limbs and a hard external skeleton, characterised by the possession of two pairs of antennae, one pair of mandibles (mouthparts used for handling and processing food) and two pairs of maxillae (appendages used in eating, which are located behind the mandibles). Includes crabs, lobsters, shrimps, woodlice and barnacles.
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
Animals with no backbone, such as insects, crustaceans, worms, molluscs, spiders, cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, sea anemones) and echinoderms.
Nominate subspecies
When a species is divided into subspecies, the originally described population is classified as the nominate subspecies. Indicated by the repetition of the species name; for example, Cyclura nubila nubila is the nominate subspecies of the Cayman Islands ground iguana, Cyclura nubila.
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.


  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2013)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Martínez-Vilalta, A. and Motis, A. (1992) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 1: Ostrich to Ducks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Available at:
  3. All About Birds - Yellow-crowned night-heron (December, 2013)
  4. Watts, B.D. (2011) The Birds of North America Online: Yellow-crowned Night-Heron Nyctanassa violacea. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  5. Blake, E.R. (1977) Manual of Neotropical Birds. Volume 1: Spheniscidae (Penguins) to Laridae (Gulls and Allies). University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  6. Beans, B.E. and Niles, L. (Eds.) (2003) Endangered and Threatened Wildlife of New Jersey. Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, New Jersey.
  7. BirdLife International - Yellow-crowned night-heron (December, 2013)

Image credit

Yellow-crowned night-heron  
Yellow-crowned night-heron

© Malcolm Schuyl /

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