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Snowy Egret, Egretta thula. Note the chicks in the nest.
Snowy Egret, Egretta thula. Note the chicks in the nest.
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Ciconiiformes
Family: Ardeidae
Leach, 1820
See text.

The herons are wading birds in the Ardeidae family. Some are called egrets or bitterns instead of herons.

Within the family, all members of the genera Botaurus and Ixobrychus are referred to as bitterns, and—including the Zigzag Heron or Zigzag Bittern—are a monophyletic group within the Ardeidae. However, egrets are not a biologically distinct group from the herons, and tend to be named differently because they are mainly white or have decorative plumes.

The classification of the individual heron/egret species is fraught with difficulty, and there is still no clear consensus about the correct placement of many species into either of the two major genera, Ardea and Egretta. Similarly, the relationship of the genera in the family is not completely resolved. For example, the Boat-billed Heron is sometimes classed as a heron, and sometimes given its own family Cochlearidae, but nowadays it is usually retained in the Ardeidae.

Although herons resemble birds in some other families, such as the storks, ibises and spoonbills, they differ from these in flying with their necks retracted, not outstretched.

The members of this family are all primarily associated with wetlands, and prey on fish, frogs and other aquatic species. Some, like the Cattle Egret, also take large insects, and are less tied to watery environments. Some members of this group nest colonially in trees, others, notably the bitterns, use reedbeds.

In February 2005, the Canadian scientist Dr. Louis Lefebvre announced a method of measuring avian IQ in terms of their innovation in feeding habits. Herons were named among the most intelligent birds based on this scale, reflecting a wide variety, flexibility and adaptiveness to acquire food.




Analyses of the skeleton, mainly the skull, suggested that the Ardeidae could be split into a diurnal and a crepuscular/nocturnal group which included the bitterns. From DNA studies and skeletal analyses focusing more on bones of body and limbs, this grouping has been revealed as incorrect (McCracken & Sheldon, 1998). Rather, the similarities in skull morphology reflect convergent evolution to cope with the different challenges of daytime and nighttime feeding. Today, it is believed that three major groups can be distinguished (Sheldon et al., 2000), which are (from the most primitive to the most advanced):

  • tiger herons and the boatbill
  • bitterns
  • day-herons and egrets, and night-herons


Subfamily Tigrisomatinae

  • Genus Cochlearius
    • Boat-billed Heron, Cochlearius cochlearius
  • Genus Tigrisoma
    • Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Tigrisoma mexicanum
      Fasciated Tiger Heron, Tigrisoma fasciatum
      Rufescent Tiger Heron, Tigrisoma lineatum
  • Genus Tigriornis
    • White-crested Tiger Heron, Tigriornis leucolophus
  • Genus Zonerodius
    • New Guinea Tiger Heron, Zonerodius heliosylus

Subfamily Botaurinae

  • Genus Zebrilus
    • Zigzag Heron, Zebrilus undulatus
  • Genus Ixobrychus
    • Little Bittern, Ixobrychus minutus
      New Zealand Little Bittern, Ixobrychus novaezelandiae (extinct)
      Cinnamon Bittern, Ixobrychus cinnamomeus
      Stripe-backed Bittern, Ixobrychus involucris
      Least Bittern, Ixobrychus exilis
      Yellow Bittern, Ixobrychus sinensis
      Schrenck's Bittern, Ixobrychus eurhythmus
      Dwarf Bittern, Ixobrychus sturmii
      Black Bittern, Ixobrychus flavicollis
  • Genus Botaurus
    • American Bittern, Botaurus lentiginosa.
      Great Bittern or European Bittern, Botaurus stellaris
      South American Bittern, Botaurus pinnatus
      Australasian Bittern, Botaurus poiciloptilus

Subfamily Ardeinae

  • Genus Zeltornis (fossil)
  • Genus Nycticorax
    • Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax violaceus or Nyctanassa violacea
      Bermuda Night Neron, Nycticorax carcinocatactes or Nyctanassa carcinocatactes (extinct)
      Black-crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax
      White-backed Night Heron, Nycticorax leuconotus or Gorsachius leuconotus
      Rodrigues Night Heron, Nycticorax megacephalus (extinct)
      Réunion Night Heron, Nycticorax duboisi (extinct)
      Mauritius Night Heron, Nycticorax mauritianus (extinct)
      Ascension Night Heron, Nycticorax olsoni (extinct)
  • Genus Gorsachius
    • Nankeen Night Heron or Rufous Night Heron, Gorsachius caledonicus or Nycticorax caledonicus
      White-eared Night Heron, Gorsachius magnificus
      Japanese Night Heron, Gorsachius goisagi
      Malayan Night Heron, Gorsachius melanolophus
  • Genus Butorides
    • Green Heron or Green-backed Heron, Butorides virescens
      Striated Heron, Butorides striatus or Ardea striatus
  • Genus Agamia
    • Agami Heron, Agamia agami
  • Genus Philherodias
    • Capped Heron, Pilherodius pileatus
  • Genus Ardeola
    • Indian Pond Heron, Ardeola grayii
      Squacco Heron, Ardeola ralloides
      Chinese Pond Heron, Ardeola bacchus
      Javan Pond Heron, Ardeola speciosa
      Madagascar Pond Heron, Ardeola idae
      Rufous-bellied Heron, Ardeola rufiventris
  • Genus Bubulcus
    • Cattle Egret, Bubulcus ibis or Ardea ibis
  • Genus Proardea (fossil)
  • Genus Ardea
    • Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
      Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
      Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
    • Grey Heron, Ardea cinerea
      Goliath Heron, Ardea goliath
      Cocoi Heron, Ardea cocoi
      White-necked Heron or Pacific Heron, Ardea pacifica
      Black-headed Heron, Ardea melanocephala
      Madagascar Heron, Ardea humbloti
      White-bellied Heron, Ardea insignis
      Great-billed Heron, Ardea sumatrana
      Purple Heron, Ardea purpurea
      Great Egret or Great White Egret, Ardea alba
      Pied Heron, Ardea picata or Egretta picata
      Intermediate Egret, Ardea intermedia or Egretta intermedia
      Swinhoe's Egret or Chinese Egret, Ardea eulophotes or Egretta eulophotes
  • Genus Syrigma
    • Whistling Heron, Syrigma sibilatrix
  • Genus Egretta
    • Little Egret, Egretta garzetta or Ardea garzetta
      Snowy Egret, Egretta thula
      Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens
      Slaty Egret, Egretta vinaceigula
      Black Heron, Egretta ardesiaca
      Tricolored Heron or Louisiana Heron, Egretta tricolor
    • Tricolored Heron or Louisiana Heron, Egretta tricolor
      Tricolored Heron or Louisiana Heron, Egretta tricolor
    • White-faced Heron, Egretta novaehollandiae or Ardea novaehollandiae
      Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea
      Eastern Reef Egret, Egretta sacra or Ardea sacra
      Western Reef Heron, Egretta gularis
  • Genus undetermined
    • Easter Island Heron, Ardeidae gen. et sp. indet. (prehistoric)

Other prehistoric and fossil species are included in the respective genus accounts.

The night herons could warrant separation as subfamily Nycticoracinae, as it was traditionally done. However, the position of some genera (e.g. Butorides or Syrigma) is unclear at the moment, and molecular studies have until now suffered from a small number of studied taxa. Especially the relationship among the ardeidine subfamily is very badly resolved. The arrangement presented here should be considered provisional.


  • McCracken, Kevin G. & Sheldon, Frederick H. (1998): Molecular and osteological heron phylogenies: sources of incongruence. Auk (journal) 115: 127–141. PDF fulltext
  • Sheldon, Frederick H.; Jones, Clare E. & McCracken, Kevin G. (2000): Relative Patterns and Rates of Evolution in Heron Nuclear and Mitochondrial DNA. Molecular Biology and Evolution 17(3): 437–450. PDF fulltext

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