Louisiana Heron not on bird list, but he’s real

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

You won’t find the name Louisiana Heron in any modern birding field guide. That’s because, in its infinite wisdom, the American Ornithological Union changed its name to Tricolored Heron over 40 years ago. That’s a real shame because the bird was known as the Louisiana Heron for at least 175 years prior to that time!

Today, the Tricolored Heron’s common name is based, presumably on its combination of blue, brown, and white colors of various hues. Theoretically, common names should be descriptive and not geographically limiting accounting for the name. But, both the Great Blue Heron and the diminutive Green Heron share similar color patterns with the Tricolored Heron although its intermediate size alone permits easy separation of the three species.

In the 1800s, John James Audubon described the Louisiana Heron thusly “Delicate in form, beautiful in plumage, and graceful in its movements, I never see this interesting Heron, without calling it the Lady of the Waters....” Audubon wrote hundreds of words about this bird but most current accounts are very short! These herons have conspicuously long, slender bills as well as long graceful necks.

Both sexes of Tricolored Herons resemble each other but there are two color phases, breeding and non-breeding. During the breeding season the birds have blue bills with black tips and pink legs. Legs turn yellow during the non-breeding season. Bodies have dark bluish gray color during both breeding and non-breeding seasons. Bellies and underwings are contrasting white. There are white lines on the bottoms of their necks. Breeding birds have distinct white crests.

Juvenile Tricolored Herons resemble adults in color. However, there is much rufous and reddish brown color in their necks, shoulder areas, and wings. Legs and bills are yellow and backs are bluish gray and bellies are white.
Birds named after locations like Louisiana Heron and Tennessee Warbler were usually named based on the location where the first ornithologist to collect them found them. The Tricolored Heron is certainly well known to Louisiana birders but its range includes the coastal tropics and continues to coastal regions of the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic states. In fact, many of the Tricolored Herons that breed in North America migrate to the Tropics to spend the winter, leaving by October and returning by April.

Tricolored Herons tend to be solitary feeders. They typically stand in shallow water searching for food and, once prey is spotted, run toward it with wings open. Sometimes they will slowly stalk prey. Unlike other medium-sized herons and egrets, Tricolored Herons will wade well into water up to their breasts in search of food.
Tricolored Herons do nest in association with each other and other wading birds in colonies that may range from a few dozen pairs to thousands of pairs of birds. Such rookeries are normally associated with flooded brush and trees. This limits the ability of predators like raccoons and possums to access the nests. Such areas attract alligators that eat whatever young birds fall into the water but prevent predators from reaching the nests.

Tricolored Herons are most commonly found along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Some do nest well inland from the coast and there seems to have been a general inland movement of nesting birds over the past half century. Post breeding dispersal in the summer accounts for occasional reports of Tricolored Herons well into the USA’s interior.