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Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Herons and egrets are often confused with cranes

Egrets and herons are indeed closely related birds, but cranes have no more in common with them than bears do with lions and tigers.

9.12.20 MJ Bird.jpg
Illustration by Mike Jacobs

There's a familiar scene in “The Wizard of Oz,” where Dorothy and her pals proceed down the yellow brick road chanting, “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” Birding might have a similar line. This would be, “Egrets and herons and cranes, oh my!” The cadence is the same, and so is the relationship of the critters mentioned.

This forensic matchup occurs to me for two reasons. The first is the juxtaposition of elements, lions and tigers in Dorothy’s world, and egrets and herons in mine. Lions and tigers are felines, and the family resemblance is obvious even though the two animals don’t look too much alike.

The same is true of egrets, herons and cranes. Egrets and herons are indeed closely related birds, but cranes have no more in common with them than bears do with lions and tigers.

Herons and egrets are often confused with cranes, while bears are never – I should be careful of absolute terms here, but surely almost never – confused with lions and tigers.

Egrets, herons and cranes each are long-legged birds, and all are associated with water, though one, the crane, is much less dependent on wetlands than the other two, egrets and herons. But “crane” has become synonymous with almost any large, long-legged bird while “bear” would hardly ever be uttered in reference to any lion or tiger.


This is a product of popular culture. Crane has come to mean any large, long-legged bird, whether it is foraging in grain fields, as cranes often do, or wading in water, as herons and egrets do most of the time (except when they’re nesting and rearing young).

Like bears from tigers and lions, cranes can be told from herons and egrets, partly by their habits, but more conclusively by their manner of movement. Cranes fly with their necks extended. Herons and egrets almost invariably fly with their necks pulled back against their bodies. In flight, all of these birds have trailing legs, but only cranes are stretched out both front and back.

Yet each year, I hear about crane sightings in our area from bird lovers, and sometimes I am told that a flock of whooping cranes has settled into a slough somewhere. It’s true that sandhill cranes occasionally nest in our area, but they are far from common. Sandhill cranes are mostly migrants, moving through our area rather than nesting here. So, any long-legged bird seen in summer is more likely to be a heron than a crane.

Great blue herons are fairly common in our area. They form nests in colonies, often in mature stands of cottonwood trees. Sandhill cranes nest on the ground. Reports of nesting sandhill cranes have become more frequent in the last decade or so, and I sometimes hear sandhills calling in midsummer. My guess is that these are nesters utilizing an extensive patch of grass and water not too far from my place west of Gilby, N.D.

This whole issue becomes a bit more complicated when egrets enter the picture. Egrets and herons are closely related, and the great egret is a spectacular, large, long-legged bird almost pure white in color, so it’s easy enough to imagine the great egret is a whooping crane, one of the rarest of North American birds. This is wishful thinking, though, as a closer look will show. Great egrets are almost entirely white. In flight, they pull back their necks. Whooping cranes have black-tipped wings and they flay with their necks extended, as sandhill cranes do.

The second reason that Dorothy’s chant about lions etc. is relevant here is that this is the time of year to expect great egrets. At least 75 were at Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Grand Forks on Wednesday morning, though it is hard to know how accurate this count might be. The birds move freely between ponds in the wetland complex at Kellys Slough.

In any case, though, there were a lot of great egrets.

The number of great blue herons was smaller, although the herons are local nesters while the great egrets are vagrants. There are nesting records for this species in our area and farther north, but the great egret is mostly a southern species. For reasons that haven’t been fully imagined, the species has exploded northward, though not in nesting season, but in early fall in a post-nesting dispersal. That’s what brings the birds here now.


The great egret is an elegant bird in flight, pure white with a bright yellow bill (darker in sub-adult birds) and black trailing legs. Alight, the bird seems somewhat ungainly, with an outsized neck. That neck is a key to identification; extended, it emphasizes the bird’s size, while pulled back against the body in flight, it reveals the elegance and grace of the great egret.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs

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