Least Bittern: Very small, secretive heron with black cap and back, and white throat and belly. Wings have conspicuous pale brown patches visible in flight. The bill, legs and feet are yellow. Feeds on fish, insects, small amphibians, crustaceans and invertebrates.
Range and Habitat
Least Bittern: Breeds in wetland areas throughout the central and eastern U.S., though is absent from the Appalachian Mountains, along the southern Pacific coast. Spends winters from the southern states south to Colombia. Resident in central Mexico and the West Indies. Found in dense marshlands supporting cattails and reeds.
Bitterns, Herons and Egrets (Ardeidae)
The CICONIIFORMES (pronounced sih-KON-ee-ih-FOR-meez) is an order composed of five families that include long-legged wading birds such as the large storks, curve-billed ibises, herons, and egrets.
In the Ardeidae (pronounced ar-DEE-uh-dee), a family found on all continents except for Antarctica, there are sixty-seven species of herons and egrets in nineteen genera.
Twenty-eight species of herons and egrets in fourteen genera have occurred in North America. Included among these are the graceful egrets, herons, and the stocky night-herons.
The Ardeidae are in general known for wading in water to patiently pursue aquatic prey. Members of this family, the Snowy Egret in particular, are also known for the elegant plumes they acquire during the breeding season.
Large and medium-sized birds, most herons and egrets have short tails, long legs and long necks with a sharp, straight bill. A few species such as the night-herons, pond-herons, and the Green Heron have shorter, thicker necks, however all species have long, broad wings that help them find the scattered wetland habitats they require.
The Ardeidae are plumaged in a variety of colors from snow-white in the egrets to various shades of grays, browns, and dark iridescent green. Many species are handsomely patterned with these tones highlighted by patches of black. Immatures are duller than adults and bright colors such as orange and yellow are limited to the bill, legs, and feet.
Herons and egrets occur in all sorts of wetland and aquatic habitats in North America except for the tundra. Ponds, lakes, rivers, estuaries, seacoasts, and marshes are all utilized by members of this family, the most widespread species being the Green and Great Blue Herons. The least common resident species is the Reddish Egret, a bird locally distributed along coastlines of the southeastern United States.
Heron and egrets undertake both short distance migration to the southern United States and Mexico, and reach Central America and the Caribbean in long-distance migrations.
Although members of this family nest in colonies and individuals may forage in the same areas, they are primarily solitary in nature. Most species forage for fish, frogs, and whatever else they might catch by patiently waiting and stalking prey until the food item is grasped or speared with a sudden thrust of the bill. Some species wade, others stalk the water from a perch, and the Cattle Egret forages with livestock in fields.
Despite many species being nearly hunted to extinction for their plumage in the early twentieth century, with protection, heron and egret populations have bounced back and are no longer threatened in North America.
The Cattle Egret is a species native to Africa that found its way to the Americas during the twentieth century. Whether this species arrived by ship or by flying across the Atlantic, this savannah species has adapted to grassland habitats in much of the Americas. It is particularly adapted to foraging with large herbivores – be they antelope, giraffes, zebras, or cattle.