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Publication #WEC264

Florida's Wading Birds1

Grant C. Sizemore, Martin B. Main, and Elise V. Pearlstine2

Wading birds are considered by many to be the most majestic of all of Florida's birds. Their long necks and graceful poses make these birds distinctly appealing. Although they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, wading birds are generally long-legged, carnivorous, and can be found in or around water. These large-bodied and colorful birds are a favorite among serious birders and casual observers alike.

Wading birds live throughout Florida and make up an integral part of the natural landscape, especially in south Florida where they often form large, multispecies feeding aggregations and nest and roost in large colonies. In addition to being enjoyable to observe, wading birds also play key ecological roles in their respective habitats. Wading birds are top predators in their systems and also function as indicators of ecosystem health (Powell and Powell 1986, Kushlan 1993, Main and Vavrina 2001). Many wading bird species are similar in appearance and yet information about their distinct characteristics and behaviors can aid in identification. Learning to identify species can increase enjoyment of wading birds, whether they are in a back yard, a neighborhood park, or the large expanses of wetlands that make up the Everglades ecosystem.

Taxonomy and Status

Florida's wading birds include 15 native species representing three families, all of which belong to the order Ciconiiformes (Table 1). These families are Ardeidae, Threskiornithidae, and Ciconiidae. The family Ardeidae is by far the most numerous and includes herons, egrets, and bitterns. In Florida, the family Threskiornithidae encompasses two species of ibis and the Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja). The family Ciconiidae includes the Wood Stork (Mycteria americana).

Several species of wading birds found in Florida are non-native or recent arrivals; these are the Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus), Scarlet Ibis (Eudocimus ruber), and Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis). Although a member of order Ciconiiformes, the Cattle Egret is primarily a terrestrial bird often found around livestock and farm machinery where it watches for insects and small prey that might be flushed and make an easy meal. This species is thought to have arrived in Florida via natural range expansion. Unlike the Cattle Egret, the two ibises are wetland birds. Although the Scarlet Ibis may occasionally breed in Florida, the Sacred Ibis and Scarlet Ibis are not as abundant as Cattle Egrets and are typically only seen in southern Florida. These two ibises are accidentals, non-native species that have not become established.

Cranes and Flamingos

Within Florida there are four particular species that look similar but are unrelated to wading birds of the order Ciconiiformes. These species are the Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis), endangered Whooping Crane (Grus americana), Limpkin (Aramus guarauna), and Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber).

The Sandhill Crane, Whooping Crane, and Limpkin are in the order Gruiformes. The two cranes are in the family Gruidae, and the Limpkin is in the family Aramidae. These three species have long legs, a long bill, and an elongated neck similar to wading birds. Although they do require wetlands for nesting and migration, Sandhill Cranes are primarily terrestrial birds common to prairies and pastures. Unlike wading birds, Sandhill Cranes consume a varied diet that includes seeds and plants and do not nest in colonies. Whooping Cranes and Limpkins live in freswater marshes and prairies. Whooping Cranes, recently reintroduced to Florida, consume a diet that includes grains, invertebrates and vertebrates. Limpkins specialized on snails and mussels. While Sandhill Cranes are generally gray and rusty in coloration, Whooping Cranes are strikingly white with red on the head. Limpkins are brown all over except for streaks of white, which are especially prominent on the head and neck.

The Greater Flamingo is a member of the order Phoenicopteriformes and in the family Phoenicopteridae. This species consumes mostly crustaceans, diatoms, mollusks, and algae. The Greater Flamingos seen in south Florida are either birds that have escaped from captivity or occasional visitors from the Caribbean. Greater Flamingos may be confused with the Roseate Spoonbill for a variety of reasons. Both species have relatively long legs, long necks, and pinkish plumage. Both also sift through the water with their bills when feeding. Depsite these similarities, the two species are unrelated. The easiest ways to tell the two species apart are by the dark outer wing feathers (primaries) on the flamingo and both species' distinctive bill shapes (see Roseate Spoonbill in Table 2).

Wading Bird Identification

Many of the wading birds are large and colorful, which makes them relatively easy to identify. However, it is still helpful to learn the distinguishing features to correctly differentiate between the various species. There are several key characteristics that can be used for easy identification: body size, plumage, and bill and leg color. Table 2 identifies these characteristics for adult wading birds found in Florida.

Feeding Behavior

Wading bird feeding behavior includes a variety of strategies and behaviors, and no species is limited to just one strategy. There are two basic categories of feeding behavior based on how prey are located, either by sight (visual) or touch (tactile). Two examples that characterize visual and tactile feeding are Great Egrets and Wood Storks, respectively. Great Egrets hold their heads above the water searching for prey and then strike at an individual prey item. Wood Storks, however, submerge their bills in the water and hold them open until they come into contact with prey. At that moment, the bill snaps shut and the prey is captured.

Although some species are solitary feeders, many wading birds may form large feeding aggregations. These aggregations can include multiple species and typically form where prey are abundant and easily available, such as in shrinking wetlands where prey become concentrated. The highly visible plumage of white wading birds may even be an aid in the establishment of feeding aggregations because it makes individuals more conspicuous to other birds flying in the area (Kushlan 1977).

Diet

Wading birds as a group eat a variety of foods and will usually feed in waters no deeper than their legs are long. All wading birds are carnivores, but prey items vary from invertebrates to vertebrates, worms to mammals, and aquatic species to terrestrial species. Generally speaking, fish are the main food source for Florida's wading birds, but invertebrates such as crayfish can be very important as well. Prey sizes differ based on the size of the predator in many animals, and wading birds are no different. Larger birds tend to take larger prey, and longer legs mean greater accessibility to prey in deeper water. Wading birds that attempt to swallow anything that is too large, however, run the risk of choking.

Breeding

Breeding among south Florida's wading birds peaks around April and May, although different species certainly vary and breeding periods are all longer than two months out of the year. In fact, wading birds nest asynchronously, which means that they do not all breed at the same time. Even within a nest, eggs are laid in intervals. The result of asynchronous nesting is that a group of birds will maintain a wide variety of stages of nesting at any given point in time. A comparison of the breeding periods of Florida's wading birds is summarized in Table 3. Wading birds attempt to nest during periods of high food availability in order to increase their likelihood of successfully raising young. In the Everglades, the timing for nesting and raising young is correlated to the natural drawdown of water, a time when food becomes naturally concentrated and more accessible. Breeding efforts generally cease when the rainy season begins. At this time of year in the Everglades, aquatic prey become scattered and exposure to the elements is harder to endure.

Wading birds are colonial nesters and often nest over water. Researchers speculate that nesting over water provides some protection from mammalian predators, likely due to the water itself being a physical barrier and the potential threat of alligators (Frederick and Collopy 1989). Other predators of nests include Fish Crows (Corvus ossifragus), snakes, and night-herons.

The distribution of information is another advantage of wading bird nesting behavior. The direction of high-quality foraging sites is valuable knowledge since foraging sites may be scattered over a large area. Wading birds within a colony have better opportunities to observe the relative success of returning individuals (e.g., feeding chicks) and observe from which direction successful birds arrive. By living in close proximity to one another within a colony, wading birds have the opportunity to obtain information from their neighbors about the surrounding landscape and make decisions about where to feed accordingly.

Movements

As with many of North America's birds, many wading birds migrate south for the winter. Migration is the seasonal movement of an animal, usually over long distances, to more suitable habitat. Florida's subtropical climate and historically expansive wetlands complex make it an ideal winter retreat for birds from more temperate climates. Some of these birds move into Florida only to spend the winter, and others migrate to Florida to nest (Robertson and Kushlan 1974). Not all wading birds present in Florida in the winter are migratory. Many are permanent residents that can be seen throughout the year.

Wading birds travel for other reasons than migration. Kushlan (1981) identified dispersal and intraregional movement as two other types of population movements. Dispersal occurs at the end of the breeding season, when nesting colonies disband and individuals seek out more available resources. Intraregional movements are more localized than both dispersal and migration and are linked to prey availability. Wading birds are capable of making long flights on a daily basis. For example, Wood Storks have been observed to undertake feeding flights as long as 80 miles (Ogden et al. 1978), but typical flights to feeding grounds are between 1 and 6 miles (Custer and Osborn 1978).

Conservation

Despite the magnificence of these birds and their important roles in local ecological systems, wading bird populations have suffered significant declines. Plume hunting at the end of the 19th century severely reduced wading bird numbers. The plumes of about 200,000 Great Egrets were sold in London in 1902 alone (Curry-Lindahl 1978), and the Reddish Egret may have actually been wiped out in southern Florida because of harvesting for the plume trade (Robertson and Kushlan 1974). Although many populations rebounded after the ban on plume hunting, some wading bird species remain in decline or threatened with extinction. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has identified the species at risk (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission 2008). Species of special concern within Florida include the Reddish Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, White Ibis, and Roseate Spoonbill. The Wood Stork is more at risk and is classified as endangered.

Since the 1930s, wading bird numbers have declined by about 90 percent (Robertson and Kushlan 1974, Ogden 1994). This decline is often attributed to human activities, primarily the loss and/or alteration of habitat. (“Alteration” is nearly always synonymous with degradation when it comes to wildlife habitat.) Wetland loss and alteration, such as the channelization and diversion that has occurred in the Everglades ecosystem, are of serious concern because wading birds are dependent on aquatic systems. Starvation is one of the main causes of wading bird nestling mortality (Jenni 1969), and the ability to acquire food is strongly correlated to surface water conditions. The presence of contaminants such as heavy metals (e.g., mercury) and pesticides in wading bird habitats also harms wading birds. Although their effects are primarily sub-lethal (the contaminated individual is usually not killed directly), contaminants may nevertheless have profound consequences for survival as they can alter normal behaviors, potentially interfering with adaptations that have been selected for over many generations.

Although conservation concerns remain, the future is full of possibilities. The majestic wading birds of Florida are now protected, and there is a public desire to see the Everglades returned to a more natural state. The value of wading birds these days is not in their breeding feathers but in their survival and natural beauty. Indeed, wading birds serve as a substantial source of income in the form of ecotourism (Main and Vavrina 2001). It is important to remember that humans are not alone on this planet and that our actions have consequences for the environments and other living species around us. We should, therefore, act with care and be mindful of the full ramifications of all our behaviors, from policy-making to daily life. Individuals can help by supporting public policy that conserves natural habitats for wildlife and by helping to conserve water, an important component of preserving Florida's wading bird populations. It is a moral responsibility of this generation to preserve and protect the integrity and natural beauty of the land for future generations.

References

Curry-Lindahl K. 1978. Conservation and management problems of wading birds and their habitats: a global overview. Pages 83-97 in A. Sprunt, J.C. Ogden, and S.Winckler (eds.), Wading Birds. Research Report No. 7. National Audubon Society. New York, NY.

Custer T.W. and Osborn R.G. 1978. Feeding habitat use by colonially-breeding herons, egrets, and ibises in North Carolina. The Auk 95: 733-743.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission [2011]. Florida's endangered species, threatened species, and species of special concern. http://myfwc.com/media/1515251/Threatened_Endangered_Species.pdf.

Frederick P.C. and Collopy M.W. 1989. The role of predation in determining reproductive success of colonially nesting wading birds in the Florida Everglades. The Condor 91(4): 860-867.

Jenni D.A. 1969. A study of the ecology of four species of herons during the breeding season at Lake Alice, Alachua County, Florida. Ecological Monographs 39(3): 245-270.

Kale H.W. and Maehr D.S. 2005. Florida's birds: a handbook and reference. Sarasota, Pineapple Press.

Kushlan J.A. 1977. The significance of plumage colour in the formation of feeding aggregations of ciconiiforms. Ibis 119(3): 361-364.

Kushlan J.A. 1978. Feeding ecology of wading birds. Pages 249-297 in Wading Birds (Sprunt I.V., Ogden J.C. and Winckler S, eds.) National Audobon Society Research Report No. 7, New York.

Kushlan J.A. 1981. Resource use strategies of wading birds. Wilson Bulletin 93(2): 145-163.

Kushlan J.A. 1993. Colonial waterbirds as bioindicators of environmental change (review). Colonial Waterbirds 16(2): 223-251.

Kushlan J.A. and Hancock J.A. 2005. The herons. New York, Oxford University Press.

Main M.B. and Vavrina C.S. 2001. Wading birds and agriculture in southwest Florida. University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service Fact Sheet WEC 143. 3 pp. University of Florida, UF/IFAS EDIS Database, http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/UW139.

Ogden J.C. 1994. A comparison of wading bird nesting colony dynamics (1931-1946 and 1974-1989) as an indication of ecosystem conditions in the southern Everglades. Pages 533-570 in S.M. Davis and J.C. Ogden (eds.), Everglades: The Ecosystem and Its Restoration, St. Lucie Press, Delray Beach, FL.

Ogden J.C., Kushlan J.A., and Tilmant J.T. 1978. The food habits and nesting success of Wood Storks in Everglades National Park in 1974. Natural Resources Report No. 16. U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.

Powell G.V.N. and Powell A.H. 1986. Reproduction by Great White Herons Ardea herodias in Florida Bay as an indicator of habitat quality. Biological Conservation 36: 101-113.

Recher H.F. and Recher J.A. 1969. Comparative foraging efficiency of adult and immature Little Blue Herons (Florida Caerulea). Animal Behavior 17: 320-322.

Robertson W.B. and Kushlan J.A. 1974. The southern Florida avifauna. Miami Geological Soc. Mem. 2: 414-452.

Figure 1. 

Great Blue Heron. Credits: Grant C. Sizemore


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Figure 2. 

Snowy Egret. Credits: Grant C. Sizemore


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Figure 3. 

Great Egret. Credits: Grant C. Sizemore


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Figure 4. 

Cattle Egret. Credits: Grant C. Sizemore


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Figure 5. 

Tricolored Heron. Credits: Grant C. Sizemore


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Figure 6. 

Reddish Egret. Credits: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission


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Figure 7. 

Little Blue Heron. Credits: Grant C. Sizemore


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Figure 8. 

Black-Crowned Night-Heron. Credits: Elise V. Pearlstine


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Figure 9. 

Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron. Credits: Grant C. Sizemore


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Figure 10. 

Green Heron. Credits: Grant C. Sizemore


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Figure 11. 

American Bittern. Credits: Grant C. Sizemore


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Figure 12. 

Woodstork. Credits: Grant C. Sizemore


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Figure 13. 

White Ibis. Credits: Grant C. Sizemore


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Figure 14. 

Roseate Spoonbill. Credits: Florida Master Naturalist Program


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Figure 15. 

Glossy Ibis. Credits: Grant C. Sizemore


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Figure 16. 

Limpkin. Credits: Florida Master Naturalist Program


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Figure 17. 

Sandhill Crane. Credits: Grant C. Sizemore


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Figure 18. 

Greater Flamingo. Credits: Elise Pearlstine


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Tables

Table 1. 

Birds of the order Ciconiiformes in Florida.

Common Name

Species Name

Family

Status

Great Egret

Ardea alba

Ardeidae

Native

Snowy Egret

Egretta thula

Ardeidae

Native

Reddish Egret

Egretta rufescens

Ardeidae

Native

Cattle Egret

Bubulcus ibis

Ardeidae

Native*

Great Blue Heron

Ardea herodias

Ardeidae

Native

Tricolored Heron

Egretta tricolor

Ardeidae

Native

Little Blue Heron

Egretta caerulea

Ardeidae

Native

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Nycticorax nycticorax

Ardeidae

Native

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Nyctanassa violacea

Ardeidae

Native

Green Heron

Butorides virescens

Ardeidae

Native

American Bittern

Botaurus lentiginosus

Ardeidae

Native

Least Bittern

Ixobrychus exilis

Ardeidae

Native

Wood Stork

Mycteria americana

Ciconiidae

Native

Roseate Spoonbill

Platalea ajaja

Threskiornithidae

Native

White Ibis

Eudocimus albus

Threskiornithidae

Native

Glossy Ibis

Plegadis falcinellus

Threskiornithidae

Native

Sacred Ibis

Threskiornis aethiopicus

Threskiornithidae

Non-native

Scarlet Ibis

Eudocimus ruber

Threskiornithidae

Non-native

*Arrived in Florida VIA natural range expansion.

Table 2. 

Key characteristics of adults from the order Ciconiformes in Florida.

Common Name

Height (inches)

Plumage

Bill Color

Leg Color

Notes

Great Egret

40

White

Yellow

Black

Pulls back head into “S” position in flight

Snowy Egret

24

White

Black

Black in front and yellow in back

Feet are yellow

Reddish Egret

30

Shaggy, body and wings dark gray, neck and head reddish-brown

Pink at base and dark at tip, may be dull in non-breeders

Dark gray

White variant (called a morph) much rarer, common to saltwater habitats

Cattle Egret

20

White, orange coloration on head and chest during breeding season

Yellow-orange

Yellow-green

Terrestrial

Great Blue Heron

50

White crown, black stripe above eyes, neck reddish-gray, gray upper wings, dark gray-blue at trailing edges of wings

Yellowish

Dark greenish

White morph rarer and typically only found in extreme south Florida and Florida Keys, head tucked back during flight

Tricolored Heron

26

Blue-gray back and upper wings; white chin, throat, and belly; reddish stripe along neck may be present

Yellowish, bright blue in breeding season

Gray-yellow

May pull back head into “S” position in flight

Little Blue Heron

26

Slate-blue, head and neck may appear deep maroon

Gray, black at tip

Gray or greenish

 

Black-crowned Night-Heron

24

Black along crown and back, white neck and belly, gray wings

Black

Yellow-green

Stockier than most wading birds, often feeds at night

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

25

Gray body, black head with white-yellow crown and cheeks

Black

Yellow

Stockier than most wading birds, often feeds at night

Green Heron

17

Chestnut-colored body; wings glossy green; glossy, black-green crown; throat and upper chest streaked white

Black and yellow

Yellow

Stockier than most wading birds

American Bittern

28

Brown with many white, vertical streaks; black streak from edge of beak down across throat

Dull yellow

Yellow

Stocky with thicker neck than most wading birds

Least Bittern

13

Dark crown and pale, brown body; neck and breast white; brown streaks run down neck; back black or dark brown

Yellow

Greenish yellow

Golden patches visible on wings in flight, stocky with thick neck

Wood Stork

40

Body white; flight feathers black

Black

Dark

Pink toes; bald, black head

Roseate Spoonbill

31

White and pink

Gray

Reddish

Bald, gray head; bill shaped like wooden spoon

White Ibis

25

White, black wing tips visible in flight

Reddish-orange

Reddish-orange

Long, slender bill curved downwards

Glossy Ibis

23

Chestnut body; wings glossy sheen of green, purple, and pink in breeding season

Dark

Dark

Long, slender bill curved downwards

Sacred Ibis

27

Black head, neck, and rear; white body

Black

Black

Long, slender bill curved downwards

Scarlet Ibis

23

Dark pink, black wing tips

Gray

Pink

Long, slender bill curved downwards

Table 3. 

Breeding periods for Florida's wading birds (adapted from Kale and Maehr 2005)

Great Egret

January – June

Snowy Egret

December – August

Reddish Egret

December – June

Great Blue Heron

November – July

Tricolored Heron

February – July

Little Blue Heron

February – September

Black-crowned Night-Heron

December – July

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

March – June

Green Heron

March – June

American Bittern

April – June

Least Bittern

March – July

Wood Stork

November – May

Roseate Spoonbill

March – May, November – December

White Ibis

March – May

Glossy Ibis

May – July

Footnotes

1.

This document is WEC264, one of a series of the Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date July 2009. Reviewed November 2012. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Grant C. Sizemore, masters graduate student, Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department; Martin B. Main, professor, Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department, Southwest Florida Research and Education Center, Immokalee; and Elise V. Pearlstine, ecology and wildlife specialist, Everglades Research and Education Center, Belle Glade, FL; Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.