How to Identify a Green Heron

Updated: Jun. 10, 2024

Find out what a green heron looks like, sounds like and where this wading bird lives, plus learn about its unique way of fishing for food.

What Does a Green Heron Look Like?

green heronCourtesy Kolin Goncalves
The colors of this heron blend well with the dark green foliage.

At first glance, this diminutive wading bird doesn’t immediately look like other herons and egrets. Those birds are usually easy to recognize by their long legs and equally long curving necks. Green herons (Butorides virescens) , on the other hand, tend to stand with their heads and necks tucked in, and their legs are relatively short. But when they stretch out their necks to capture prey (and sometimes while in flight), it suddenly becomes clear that they are indeed a member of the heron family.

This is one of the smallest herons, around the size of an American crow at about 16 to 18 inches long, with a wingspan of 25 to 26 inches or so. In many lights, their body seems more slate blue or brown than green, with a ruddy brown neck and breast marked with white. In bright sun, their head crests and back can appear a brilliant iridescent green, giving them their common name.

Males and females look alike, while juveniles have duller coloration, with pale wing spots and brown and white stripes on their breast.

Habitat and Range

278212314 1 Deborah Mccrary Bnb Bypc 2021Courtesy Deborah Mccrary
Look for these birds around wetlands

Like most herons, this isn’t a backyard bird for most. But they’re very common in a lot of their range. “They can be found in shallow wetlands, along both fresh or saltwater shorelines,” says Erika Zambello of Audubon Florida. “Check lakes, estuaries, ponds, or even flooded areas of fields or ditches.”

Though they’re usually birds of the wetlands, these small wading birds sometimes visit small backyard ponds to dine on ornamental fish. If you encounter this issue, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recommends putting a piece of drain pipe in place to give fish someplace to hide.

You’ll find this bird all year in Florida, along the Gulf Coast and down through Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. They’re also year-round residents in southern coastal California and the southwestern tip of Arizona.

In the spring, they expand their territory far to the north in the eastern half of the U.S., ranging all the way up to New England and the upper midwest. Out west, the range expands up the coast to southern British Columbia.

Learn how to identify a little blue heron.

What Do Green Herons Eat?

Bnbbyc19 Bee MoyerCourtesy Bee Moyer
Green heron with a large frog

“Green herons are known for ‘fishing’ for their prey,” Erika notes. “When they’re hunting in the shallows, they entice little fish to the surface using pieces of their own feathers or insects. When the fish swims close the herons snap them up in their bills. This is a rare behavior for a bird, which makes it really interesting.” When they’re not using tools to fish, they stalk the edges of ponds and waterways, darting forward with their sharp bills to snag their supper.

These wading birds also eat insects, crustaceans, snails, rodents, and small amphibians and reptiles. Due to their smaller size, they’re usually found hunting in areas where the water is 4 inches deep or less. However, they’re sometimes known to dive for prey in deeper waters too, after which they swim back to shore rather like a duck.

Green Heron Nesting Habits

green heron fledglingCourtesy Patsy Laflam
Green heron fledgling

According to Erika, green herons don’t mate for life, but instead may choose a new mate each season. Males choose a nest site in their territory, usually near the water’s edge, in the crook of a tree or shrub where branches overhead conceal the nest. Sometimes they choose a site in a tree some distance away from water.

Mating birds cry out loudly and repeatedly as they stretch their necks, flap their wings, and snap their bills. The female lays three to five pale bluish-green eggs, which hatch in about three weeks. Both parents sit on the nest, and then work together to feed their hatchlings.

green heronCourtesy Elizabeth Martine
This green heron is a one-year-old bird, as indicated by the dull colors, extra white stripes on the neck, and extra brown markings on the wings.

Young birds spend two to three weeks in the nest before fledging.

Learn all about great egret nests.

Sounds and Calls

When it comes to green herons, you might be more likely to hear them than spot them. “They can sometimes be hard to see, which is why I love listening to them,” Erika explains. “They have a varied vocal range, from an almost otherworldly bellow or (in flight) a high-pitched shriek.”

Listen for their distinctive “skeow” call, and you’ll know there’s one hiding in the shadows nearby.

Bird sounds courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

About the Expert

Erika Zambello is the communications director for Audubon Florida. A former National Geographic Young Explorer, she has a master’s degree in environmental management, ecosystem science and conservation from Duke University.