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Black-crowned Night Heron

Nycticorax nycticorax

Length: 25 inches Wingspan: 45 inches Seasonality: Summer / Migrant
ID Keys: Black cap and back, gray wings, red eyes, white underparts

Black-crowned Night-Heron - Nycticorax nycticoraxThe Black-crowned is the Night Heron most likely to be seen in South Dakota.  Less solitary than the Yellow-crowned Night Heron (a rare visitor to the state), they are sometimes seen in large groups during the day, sitting motionless in trees, thickets, or wetland vegetation. Black-crowned Night Herons are also more nocturnal of the two species, feeding primarily at night.  They are among the most widely distributed birds in the world, found not only in North America, but also in South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.


Wide variety of fresh and salt-water habitats. The common characteristic of habit chosen by Black-crowned Night-herons is 1) aquatic habitat for foraging, and 2) vegetation for roosting and nesting. In North America, they could be found anywhere from coastal salt-water marshes with scattered trees, to mangrove swamps, to freshwater wetlands with scattered shrubs and trees.


Omnivorous, feeding on fish, crustaceans, insects, amphibians, small rodents, small reptiles, small birds, and occasionally plant material. 


Forages in shallow water, either standing still and waiting for prey to come within range, or walking slowly in search of food.  Will forage at any time of day, but is typically most active from dusk through dawn. They are a gregarious species, particularly during the breeding season, but also sometimes in migration and winter months.


June and July.  Black-crowned Night-Herons breed in colonies, sometimes single species colonies, but often in mixed colonies with other wading bird species.  The nest is a platform of sticks, most often placed in trees and shrubs, but sometimes on the ground.  The female usually lays 3 or 4 eggs, and both parents help to incubate them.  When the eggs hatch, both parents help to feed the young.  The young fledge after about 6 weeks.  Black-crowned Night-herons don't differentiate between young in nesting colonies, and have been known to "adopt" and raise young not originally their own.

Interactive eBird Map:

Click to access an interactive eBird map of Black-crowned Night-heron sightings


While often silent, Black-crowned Night herons are capable of a variety of harsh clucks and squawking calls, given as disturbance calls, during courtship, or while tending to young in the nest.

1Click here to hear the squawking call of a Black-crowned Night-heron in flight

2Click here to hear begging calls of young and other vocalizations around a nest site

3Click here to hear the quarreling scolds between two Black-crowned Night herons


Summers throughout much of the U.S. and southern Canada.  Winters along U.S. coasts, Mexico, and Central America.

Similar Species:

If seen well, the Black-crowned Night Heron is has a relatively distinctive appearance. However they could be confused with other small, stocky heron species.

Conservation Status:

One of the most widespread birds in the world, Black-crowned Night-herons are found in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, as well as North America. While there are undoubtedly local declines in parts of their range, overall they are common in parts of their range and have (obviously) a very wide geographic range. In the United States, Black-crowned Night-herons have been expanding in both range and numbers after declining in the mid-20th century.  Their currently populations in the United States are relatively stable. The IUCN lists the Black-crowned Night-Heron as a species of "Least Concern".

Further Information:

1) BirdWeb - Black-crowned Night-Heron

2) Audubon Guide - Black-crowned Night Heron

3) Black-crowned Night Heron

Photo Information:

May 14th, 2010 - Lake Whitewood in eastern South Dakota - Terry Sohl

Additional Photos:

Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution Black-crowned Night Heron photos.

Audio File Credits:

1Joost van Brugen - Recorded in Guinea Bisseau on January 16th, 2020. Original recording and information from xeno-canto.

2Paul Marvin - Recorded in San Diego County, California on June 16th, 2019. Original recording and information from xeno-canto.

3Joost van Brugen - Recorded near Seville, Spain on August 4th, 2018. Original recording and information from xeno-canto.


Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Black-crowned Night-heron - Range map
South Dakota Status: Common summer breeding resident in the northeastern part of the state, uncommon elsewhere in the east.  Rare in the western part of the state.

Additional Black-crowned Night Heron Photos
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos
 Black-crowned Night-heron 1 - Nycticorax nycticoraxBlack-crowned Night-heron 2 - Nycticorax nycticoraxBlack-crowned Night-heron 3 - Nycticorax nycticoraxBlack-crowned Night-heron 4 - Nycticorax nycticoraxBlack-crowned Night-heron 5 - Nycticorax nycticoraxBlack-crowned Night-heron 6 - Nycticorax nycticoraxBlack-crowned Night-heron 7 - Nycticorax nycticoraxBlack-crowned Night-heron 8 - Nycticorax nycticoraxBlack-crowned Night-heron 9 - Nycticorax nycticoraxBlack-crowned Night-heron 10 - Nycticorax nycticoraxBlack-crowned Night-heron 11 - Nycticorax nycticoraxBlack-crowned Night-heron 12 - Nycticorax nycticoraxBlack-crowned Night-heron 13 - Nycticorax nycticoraxBlack-crowned Night-heron 14 - Nycticorax nycticoraxBlack-crowned Night-heron 15 - Nycticorax nycticoraxBlack-crowned Night-heron 16 - Nycticorax nycticoraxBlack-crowned Night-heron 17 - Nycticorax nycticorax