March 2022 Birds Need Plants Photo Contest

From most populous to threatened

Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor Order CICONIIFORMES – Family ARDEIDAE

Hunkered Down Tricolored Heron on a cold day at Orlando Wetlands © Lou Lower

by Juanita N. Baker, Ph.D.

Even on a cold and wet PIAS field trip to Orlando Wetlands, the birds can be found but …also cold and wet.  Beautifully photographed by Lou Lower, every feather is detailed.  Appearing very much alive in its habitat, look how this Tri-colored Heron is tucking its long neck in—huddling to keep warm and as dry as possible. Though 2 feet from tip of bill to tail, it easily stands on long legs, yet weighs not quite a pound, thus its scaly long toes stretch out allowing standing so easily balanced on floating plants, on cattails with water lettuce nearby.  Tufts of feather are visible blowing not only from its beak, but from the chest and wing feathers where evidently it has been preening…a frequently needed chore to keep the essential feathers straightened, knitted together for flight and to repel rain.  The camera captures such fine detail, even of the beautiful lavender filamentous plumes with whitish endings trailing off to the right side from its back.

Nonbreeding males and females have similar feather patterns, though males are somewhat larger and during breeding their eyes become deep magenta compared to the female’s more scarlet eye.1  Here in Florida for millions of years they’ve roamed as the most abundant heron.  In the 1920s a colony on the Sebastian River near Roseland was estimated to have 1,000-1,500 nesting pairs.2 They were limited in the US to the Southeastern states along the gulf and were called the Louisiana Heron. However, by the 1940s they began to spread along the East Coast as far North as Maine, and now regularly wander over much of Eastern U.S. interior.  Then, they were renamed the Tri-colored Heron, the only Dark heron with a white belly. Until the Cattle Egret migrated to North America in the 1950s, the Tri-colored Heron continued as our most abundant heron.  However, wading and feeding primarily on aquatic animals (fish, frogs, lizards, mollusks, crustaceans, and insects), its numbers have declined as these coastal areas are also prime habitats now for humans who have altered and polluted the coastal wetlands and sea grasses where tasty morsels grew.  It is now listed as a Florida Threatened species.3


1Frederick, P. C. (2020). Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

2Howell, Arthur H. (1932). Florida Bird Life. Florida Department of Game and Fresh Water Fish in cooperation with Bureau of Biological Survey, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Publisher’s Agents. NY: Coward-McCann, Inc.

3The Tricolored Heron Has More Than Three Colors. (2022, Conversation).

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