Herons are aquatic-centric birds known for their striking looks and quick reflexes when catching fish. While herons, egrets, and storks are often confused, these birds all play a similar role in their ecosystems and eat the same foods. Let’s learn what herons eat, as well as a bit about this fascinating species of bird.
What do herons eat?
Herons eat fish, frogs, small mammals, crustaceans, reptiles, and even other birds!
Although you may not think of them as carnivores, herons stick to a diet mostly consisting of other animals! Still, herons are incredibly varied in their exact diet. Depending on the species and where the heron lives, their diets could be radically different. It’s important to keep in mind that all species of heron have unique diets, but we will be covering what they eat on a broader scope.
As predatory birds, herons are known for their uncanny ability to catch small bits of food, especially fish, with their spearlike beaks. The majority of herons live near coastline or freshwater. As a result, their diets are typically dominated by things like fish and small crustaceans.
Generally, herons are game to eat anything that’s moving, as long as they can swallow it. In coastline habitats, they primarily stick to fish and are adept hunters when it comes to catching them. Most herons are generalists, meaning they eat whatever they can find, but a few species are more specialized in their approach to food. The yellow-crowned night heron, for example, has adapted to eating mainly crustaceans like crabs.
The dietary changes of herons who aren’t tied to the water are reflected in the ecosystems they live in. One species of heron known as the cattle egret follows large grazing animals and eats the insects that scurry around as they move through the grass. For these herons, insects are the only food source they eat as they have specialized.
A complete list of foods that herons eat
Here is a complete list of the common foods that herons will eat:
- small carp
- koi and ornamental fish
- top smelt
- hermit crabs
- small birds (ducklings, plovers, and sandpipers)
Herons are able to eat up to 1lb of fish per day, among other small additions to their diet.
How do herons hunt?
Watching a heron hunt is a truly beautiful thing. These sleek birds are incredibly fast and intelligent, keeping them at the top of the food chain, aside from the occasional crocodile or adult bald eagle. Herons are most active during the dawn and dusk, coinciding with their prey’s activity. Still, it’s possible to see them beautifully poised during the day. If they do hunt during the day, many species of heron spread their wings up, reducing glare on the water and casting shadows to confuse the fish.
For fish, herons are the best around. They will spend hours at a time wading through shorelines, rivers, and streams, looking for movement. Their thin legs keep them invisible under the water, and their sky-colored bellies keep fish from distinguishing their shape from below. When an unsuspecting fish swims too close, the heron will strike out like a snake, impaling or catching the fish in its beak. For this reason, any ornamental fish need to be protected. It’s well known that koi ponds are favorite hunting grounds for herons.
When it comes to other small animals, herons aren’t picky. If it’s slow-moving, a heron can usually just pick it up and toss it back. They prefer to swallow their prey whole and digest it, bones and all. For prey that is too large to swallow whole, they will tear it apart and swallow large chunks.
Eggs are a favorite food of herons, and they will seek bird nests for the sole purpose of finding them. When they find an egg, they just swallow the entire thing whole, shell and all.
Specialized hunting strategies
Herons also employ specialized hunting strategies that reflect the environmental niches they occupy.
The yellow-crowned heron, for example, has adapted to eat primarily crabs. It hunts by sitting on the shoreline or on rocks and snapping up crabs as they pass. For small catches, a quick jerk back and it swallows it whole. Larger crabs require a bit more processing.
Some species of heron have adapted to use bait to lure fish into certain areas, thereby making hunting easier. The little egret and grey heron have been documented placing seeds and bread in the water, waiting for fish to come up and feed.
Another method that non-water-based herons will use involves following cattle. As large herd animals move in a field, they disturb grasses and undergrowth, sending insects flying in all directions. When the insects scurry, the heron will swoop down and snatch up a bug or two. This method is so successful that one study showed a 3.6x increase in prey capture success.
What animals compete with herons for food?
There are 72 species of herons, egrets, and bitterns in the world. Although many compete for resources, the environments they thrive in are resource-rich. Additionally, herons have few natural predators, giving them nearly unrestricted access to their food sources. As a result, competition between herons is low. Still, they do compete with other birds for prime fishing locations.
Some species of heron are highly territorial and will aggressively attack any potential threats. Still, many of them will sleep in large flocks of up to 100 birds, known as a “rookery.” When there are any conflicts between herons and potential competition, it is usually minimal and occasional.
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