If you see a tall, long-necked bird stalking along a lakeshore, it’s probably a heron or an egret. But which one have you seen? And what’s the difference between them? Tom Hibbert from The Wildlife Trusts takes a look…

What is a heron?

Before we look at the differences between herons and egrets, there’s an important question to answer: what do we mean when we say heron? The name heron can be used to describe any member of the family Ardeidae – a large group of long-legged, long-necked birds typically found around water. This includes the birds we usually refer to as herons, egrets and bitterns. So all egrets are herons, but not all herons are egrets!

When we talk about herons in this article, we’re talking specifically about the grey heron, Ardea cinerea.

How to tell the difference between an egret and a heron

There’s a very easy way to tell an egret from a heron, in the UK at least – egrets are bright white! The grey heron, as the name suggests, is mostly grey. It’s a big, bulky bird with incredibly long legs that range from dark grey to pink or yellow.

It has a grey back, with paler underparts and a long, grey or white neck. The head is white, with characteristic black markings on the sides of the crown that extend back into a long, thin crest. The beak is large and dagger-like, turning from greyish-yellow to more orange in spring.

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If you see a white bird with long legs, a long neck, and a sharp beak, it’s almost certainly an egret, but which egret is it? Until recently, seeing any egret in the UK was a major rarity. But in the last few decades, three different species have moved north from continental Europe and started breeding here. The little egret arrived first, followed by the cattle egret and great white egret.

How to recognise and identify different egrets

The great white egret (Ardea alba), unsurprisingly, is a large white bird. It’s about the same size as a grey heron, but slimmer and more elegant. It has an incredibly long neck, which is often kinked into an ‘s’ shape. Its beak is slenderer than a heron’s and is bright yellow – though it turns black for a few weeks in the breeding season. Its feet and lower legs are dark, but the upper legs can be paler.

The little egret (Egretta garzetta) is also bright white, but it’s about half the size of a grey heron. Although it has a very long neck, when it’s not hunting it can hunker down and appear to have almost no neck at all. It has a dark beak and legs, varying from dull green to black.

Its feet are yellow – a distinctive feature if they’re not hidden by grass, mud, or underwater. In the summer, it develops two long, elegant white plumes from the back of its head.

The cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) is the smallest and stockiest of our three egrets. It has a much shorter neck and legs than a little egret, giving it a more compact appearance. Its beak is also shorter and stubbier. For most of the year the beak is yellow, but it turns pink in the breeding season. Like the other egrets, it has white feathers, but during the breeding season it shows an ochre or orange wash to the feathers on the crown, breast and back. Traces of this colour can remain well beyond the breeding season.

Where to find egrets and herons

Grey herons can be found throughout most of the British Isles, usually close to water, including rivers, lakes, ditches and flooded fields. They’ll even hunt in rockpools on the coast. Great white egrets and little egrets have similar tastes in habitat to grey herons and are often found on wetlands and marshes. Little egrets are particularly fond of estuaries.

Cattle egrets are more likely to be found away from water than the other species. They often feed in fields, following cows and horses around. In other parts of the world, where they’re more common, they’re regularly found in large groups. Here they’re found on their own, in pairs or sometimes in small groups.

Herons and all three egrets nest in colonies, often in waterside trees. It’s not unusual to find different species nesting together in a colony. Outside of the breeding season, they’ll also form communal roosts for the night.

How do egrets and herons hunt for food?

Grey herons and great white egrets share a similar style when it comes to fishing. You’ll often see them standing still for long periods, or stalking slowly with carefully placed steps, staring intently at the water below them. Suddenly, they’ll strike, plunging their beak into the water to catch an unsuspecting fish.

Little egrets prefer a different approach. They walk slowly through the shallows, regularly pausing to stretch one leg forward and rapidly waggle it. This movement disturbs the floor and flushes out small fish and other aquatic creatures, which the egret can then catch. Their bright yellow feet are thought to help disturb prey.

As mentioned above, cattle egrets are often found away from water, in fields of livestock. You’ll see them following the grazing mammals, feeding on insects and other small animals they disturb. They stroll along behind the grazers, sometimes breaking into a short run when they spot prey.

Could anything else be mistaken for a heron or egret?

There is another big white bird that is becoming an increasingly common sight in parts of the UK – the spoonbill. As the name suggests, this bird’s most distinctive feature is its long, black beak which broadens at the end like a spoon or spatula. Snoozing spoonbills hide their beak in their feathers, but their posture still gives them away. Spoonbills adopt a fairly horizontal posture when resting, more like a goose, whilst egrets are typically rigid and upright at rest. A flying spoonbill can be recognised by its outstretched neck – egrets hunch their neck up in flight.

Want to see nesting herons for yourself? Find a heronry near you: Heronry | The Wildlife Trusts

Tom Hibbert is a birdwatcher and content officer for The Wildlife Trusts. Follow him on Twitter @TomHibbert54

Main image: grey heron (left) and great white egret (right) © Getty Images


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