New York Natural Heritage Program
Tricolored Heron
Egretta tricolor (Müller, 1776)
Birds

Identifying Characteristics [-]
The tricolored heron is a medium-sized heron, about 66 cm in length with a wingspan of 90-95 cm (National Geographic Society 1999). The throat, foreneck, breast, and belly of all age classes are pale in color. Adults in non-breeding plumage have a slate gray head, back of neck, back, tail, and wings. The long back feathers are maroon in color. The chin and under parts of the wings are white. There are dark spots on the foreneck. The bill is light colored at the base, gradually turning black at the tip. The legs are white. The iris of the eye is brown with a pink inner margin. During breeding season, white plumes appear on the back of the head, the neck changes to a purple-mauve color the bill is blue at the base with a black tip, and the legs turn pink. The iris of the male's eyes becomes brick red while the inner margin of the iris in females changes from pink to deep red. Juveniles are medium-brown to gray in color, with a white stripe going down the throat and the foreneck spotty. The bill is yellow with a black tip, the iris of the eye is pale yellow, and the legs are yellow-green. Hatchlings are downy and are a fawn color with a gray back. Eggs are oval in shape, measuring on average 44 x 32 mm, and are a pale blue-green in color. The shell surface is smooth. Tricolored herons are colonial nesters, nesting 0.5-4 m above ground in trees or dense vegetation. Their nests are platform in shape, about 30 cm in diameter, and composed of twigs. Tricolored herons have been noted as being quite noisy. Vocalizations made by both males and females during courtship and breeding sounds like "Culh-Culh". When startled or faced with aggression, their call sounds like a deep "Ahh" (Frederick 1997).

Characters Most Useful for Identification [-]
The contrasting colors of the dark upper body and white foreneck, breast and belly make the tricolored heron easily distinguishable from other heron species.

Best Life Stage for Proper Identification [-]
Tricolored herons can be easily identified when the adults are in their breeding plumage.

Behavior [-]
The tricolored heron has been described as a graceful bird—taking slow, careful, and light steps as it walks about. It flies with its head drawn in and legs behind its body (Bent 1926). When foraging, it often pursues its prey rather than “stand and wait”, which is typical of other herons (Bent 1926; Frederick 1997). Tricolored herons are colonial nesters and often nest with other species. Males arrive at the colony from the wintering grounds first, establish their territory, and begin building the nest site, usually before a pair bond is formed. The male makes various stretching, bill snapping, and twig shaping displays to attract a female. Once a pair is established, the male gathers the rest of the nest material and the female takes over building the nest. Eggs are down about a week after the nest is complete. Clutch size is three to five eggs, and incubation lasts 20-25 days. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs (Frederick 1997).

Diet [-]
The diet of the tricolored heron is mainly composed of fish, with minnows and killifish being their preferred prey. They will also forage for various types of small insects and crustaceans (Frederick 1997).
Tricolored Heron Images
click to enlarge
The Best Time to See
Breeding dates in New York are poorly documented. Tricolored herons can be found breeding on the non-barrier islands of Long Island from April to early August (Frederick 1997).
J F M A M J J A S O N D
Present Breeding
The time of year you would expect to find Tricolored Heron present (blue shading) and breeding (orange shading) in New York.
Similar Species
  • Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea)
    The little blue heron is all dark in color, while the tricolored heron has a white foreneck, breast, and belly.
  • Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
    The great blue heron is larger and does not have a white belly.