Herons and Egrets: a curious taxonomy

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richj20 Veteran Member • Posts: 8,147
Herons and Egrets: a curious taxonomy
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When I photographed my first Great Egret, Ardea alba, years ago, I was surprised to learn that it is placed in the Heron genus, Ardea (from Latin meaning "heron").

I was reminded of this in a conversation recently with a friend, and I made a list of some of the different ways taxonomists (those who place birds in the different scientific categories) have treated these birds, and the confusion that arises with common names.

All Herons, Egrets, and Bitterns are in the Heron Family, Ardeide. (the ending -ide indicates a Family Name).

One zoologist writes that the terms "heron" and "egret" do not correspond with a specific set of traits, and in fact all members of the family are often collectively referred to as "herons."

Great Egret, Ardea alba

The Great Egret has a large yellow beak, and black feet. An example of a common name "Egret" placed in a different genus "Heron."

alba refers to the white color

Snowy Egret, Egretta thula

This egret has a black beak and yellow feet. It is placed in its own genus, Egretta, from Provençal French for the little egret, aigrette, a diminutive of aigron, "heron".

The species thula is the Araucano for the black-necked swan, a mislabeling that has never been corrected.

Confusing the issue is that in New Zealand, there is a White Heron, Egretta alba modesta. Some authors list it as a sub-species of the Great Egret: Ardea alba modesta.

Danny Young, member nzmacro, mentioned this bird a while back in commenting to a post where I included a photograph of the Great Egret and Snowy Egret.

I've noticed that different species of birds get along quite well in a local park/lake nature habitat.

Snowy Egret flying into join some American White Pelicans and a Great Egret. Later, some of the Mud Hens on the shoreline swam over.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

I'm impressed that these birds, which weigh less than 5 pounds, control such massive looking wings.

I believe this is a juvenile, quite habituated.

Another confusion is there is a recognized sub-species, the Great White Heron, Ardea herodias occidentalis, native to South Florida, sometimes confused with the Great Egret. I've not seen a photograph of one posted on the forum.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

A different genus containing three species of small Herons. The name comes from Middle English butor "bittern" and Ancient Greek -oides, "resembling." And virescens is Latin for "greenish".

Thanks to member Greyser for help with this ID. Late teen or early adult

Adult. My favorite colors of the Herons I've seen.

Black-crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

A genus of about ten species of night herons.

Nycti- for night; corax for raven, referring to the crow-like sound it makes. (I've never heard one make a sound)

These birds are very patient, waiting for a meal. After photographing it, I walked around this lake and  watched, and it didn't move for almost 20 minutes.

While they do feed at night, I see them often during the day.

Thus my tale of some herons and egrets. I recall a botanist friend years ago remarking about the taxonomy of plants, and it probably can apply to birds:

  • They don't care what we call them.

And they are certainly fun to photograph!

- Richard

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