Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
[Little Blue Heron.]
ARDEA COEPRULEA, Linn.
PLATE CCCLXXII.--ADULT MALE AND YOUNG.
Along with a few other Herons, this is, comparatively speaking, confined
within narrow limits along our southern coast in winter. It occurs, however, in
most parts of the Floridas, where it is a constant resident, and whence, at the
approach of summer, vast multitudes are seen proceeding northward, in search of
suitable places in which they may rear their young in security. Many, however,
go southward, beyond the limits of the United States, and proceed coastwise to
Texas and Mexico to spend the winter, especially the younger birds, when still
in that singular white plumage which differs so much from that of the young of
every other known species of this genus, except that of the Reddish Egret (A.
rufescens). At New Orleans, where it arrives at the same period, both from
Mexico and the Floridas, its first appearance in spring is about the beginning
of March; at which time also multitudes leave the Floridas on their way
eastward, to settle in Georgia, the Carolinas, and other States farther east, as
far as Long Island in that of New York. Beyond this, I believe, no birds of the
species have been met with. They rarely, if ever, proceed far inland, or leave
the shores of our large rivers and estuaries. On the Mississippi, the swamps
and lakes on the borders of which are so well adapted to the habits of these
birds, few individuals are ever seen above Natchez. About the beginning of
September, by which time the young are able to shift for themselves, they return
When in the Floridas, during winter, I observed that the Blue Herons
associated with other species, particularly the White Heron, Ardea Egretta, and
the Louisiana Heron, Ardea Ludoviciana, all of which were in the habit of
roosting together in the thick evergreen low bushes, that cover the central
parts of the islands along the coast. Their passage to and from their feeding
places, is as regular as the rising and setting of the sun, and, unless
frequently disturbed, they betake themselves every night to the same locality,
and almost to the same spot. In the morning, they rise with one accord from the
roosts on which they have been standing all night on one leg, the other drawn up
among the feathers of the abdomen, their neck retracted, and their head and bill
buried beneath their scapulars. On emerging from their retreats, they at once
proceed to some distant place in search of food, and spend the day principally
on the head waters of the rivers, and the fresh-water lakes of the interior,
giving a decided preference to the soft mud banks, where small crabs or fiddlers
are abundant, on which they feed greedily, when the inland ponds have been dried
tip, and consequently no longer supply them with such fishes as they are wont to
There, and at this season, reader, you may see this graceful Heron, quietly
and in silence walking along the margins of the water, with an elegance and
grace which can never fail to please you. Each regularly-timed step is lightly
measured, while the keen eye of the bird seeks for and watches the equally
cautious movements of the objects towards which it advances with all imaginable
care. When at a proper distance, it darts forth its bill with astonishing
celerity, to pierce and secure its prey; and this it does with so much
precision, that, while watching some at a distance with a glass, I rarely
observed an instance of failure. If fish is plentiful, on the shallows near the
shore, when it has caught one, it immediately swallows it, and runs briskly
through the water, striking here and there, and thus capturing several in
succession. Two or three dashes of this sort, afford sufficient nourishment for
several hours, and when the bird has obtained enough it retires to some quiet
place, and remains there in an attitude of repose until its hunger returns.
During this period of rest, however, it is as watchful as ever, and on hearing
the least noise, or perceiving the slightest appearance of danger, spreads its
wings, and flies off to some other place, sometimes to a very distant one.
About an hour before sunset, they are again seen anxiously searching for food.
When at length satisfied, they rise simultaneously from all parts of the marsh,
or shore, arrange themselves into loose bodies, and ascending to the height of
fifty or sixty yards in the air, fly in a straight course towards their roosting
place. I saw very few of these birds during the winter, on or near the river
St. John in Florida; but on several occasions met with some on small ponds in
the pine barrens, at a considerable distance from any large stream, whither they
had been attracted by the great number of frogs.
The flight of the Blue Heron is rather swifter than that of the Egret,
Ardea candidissima, and considerably more so than that of the Great Blue Heron,
Ardea Herodias, but very similar to that of the Louisiana Heron, Ardea
Ludoviciana. When the bird is travelling, the motion is performed by flappings
in quick succession, which rapidly propel it in a direct line, until it is about
to alight, when it descends in circular sailings of considerable extent towards
the spot selected. During strong adverse winds, they fly low, and in a
continuous line, passing at the necessary distance from the shores to avoid
danger, whether at an early or a late hour of the day. I recollect that
once, on such an occasion, when, on the 15th of March, I was in company with my
friend JOHN BACHMAN, I saw a large flock about sunset arising from across the
river, and circling over a large pond, eight miles distant from Charleston. So
cautious were they, that although the flock was composed of several hundred
individuals, we could not manage to get so much as a chance of killing one. I
have been surprised to see how soon the Blue Herons become shy after reaching
the districts to which they remove for the purpose of breeding from their great
rendezvous the Floridas, where I never experienced any difficulty in procuring
as many as I wished. In Louisiana, on the other hand, I have found them equally
vigilant on their first arrival. On several occasions, when I had placed myself
under cover, to shoot at some, while on their way to their roosts or to their
feeding grounds, I found it necessary to shift from one place to another, for if
one of them had been fired at and had fallen in a particular place, all that
were in its company took care not to pass again near it, but when coming up
diverged several hundred yards, and increased their speed until past, when they
would assume their more leisurely flappings. In South Carolina, where they are
very shy on their arrival, I have seen them fly off on hearing the very distant
report of a gun, and alight on the tops of the tallest trees, where they would
congregate in hundreds, and whence they would again fly off on the least
apprehension of danger. But when once these Herons have chosen a place to
nestle in, or reached one in which they bred the preceding year, they become so
tame as to allow you to shoot as many as you are disposed to have.
While on Cayo Island, in the Gulf of Mexico, on the 10th of April, 1837, I
observed large flocks of the Blue and Green Herons, Ardea coerulea and A.
virescens, arriving from the westward about the middle of the day. They flew at
a considerable height, and came down like so many Hawks, to alight on the low
bushes growing around the sequestered ponds; and this without any other noise
than the rustling of their wings as they glided through the air towards the spot
on which they at once alighted. There they remained until sunset, when they all
flew off, so that none were seen there next day. This shews that although these
species migrate both by day and night, they are quite diurnal during the period
of their residence in any section of the country which they may have chosen for
a season. It is more than probable that it has been from want of personal
knowledge of the habits of these birds, that authors have asserted that all
Herons are nocturnally inclined. This certainly is by no means the case,
although they find it advantageous to travel by night during their migrations,
which is a remarkable circumstance as opposed to their ordinary habits. In the
instance above mentioned, I found the birds remarkably gentle, which was
probably owing to fatigue.
The Blue Heron breeds earlier or later according to the temperature of the
district to which it resorts for that purpose, and therefore earlier in Florida,
where considerable numbers remain, during the whole year, than in other parts of
the United States. Thus I have found them ill the southern parts of that
country, sitting on their eggs, on the 1st of March, fully a month earlier than
in the vicinity of Bayou Sara, on the Mississippi, where they are as much in
advance of those which betake themselves, in very small numbers indeed, to our
Middle Districts, in which they rarely begin to breed before the fifteenth of
The situations which they choose for their nests are exceedingly varied. I
have found them sitting on their eggs on the Florida Keys, and on the islands in
the Bay of Galveston, in Texas, in nests placed amidst and upon the most tangled
cactuses, so abundant on those curious isles, on the latter of which the
climbing rattlesnake often gores itself with the eggs of this and other species
of Heron, as well as with their unfledged young. In the lower parts of
Louisiana, it breeds on low bushes of the water-willow, as it also does in South
Carolina; whereas, on the islands on the coast of New Jersey, and even on the
mainland of that State, it places its nest on the branches of the cedar and
other suitable trees. Wherever you find its breeding place, you may expect to
see other birds in company with it, for like all other species, excepting
perhaps the Louisiana Heron, it rarely objects to admit into its society the
Night Heron, the Yellow-crowned Heron, or the White Egret.
The heronries of the southern portions of the United States are often of
such extraordinary size as to astonish the passing traveller. I confess that I
myself might have been as sceptical on this point as some who, having been
accustomed to find in all places the Heron to be a solitary bird, cannot be
prevailed on to believe the contrary, had I not seen with my own eyes the vast
multitudes of individuals of different species breeding together in peace in
certain favourable localities.
The nest of the Blue Heron, wherever situated, is loosely formed of dry
sticks, sometimes intermixed with green leaves of various trees, and with grass
or moss, according as these materials happen to be plentiful in the
neighbourhood. It is nearly flat, and can scarcely be said to have a regular
lining. Sometimes you see a solitary nest fixed on a cactus, a bush, or a tree;
but a little beyond this you may observe from six to ten, placed almost as
closely together as you would have put them had you measured out the space
necessary for containing them. Some are seen low over the water, while others
are placed high; for, like the rest of its tribe, this species is rather fond of
placing its tenement over or near the liquid element.
The eggs are usually three, rarely four; and I have never found a nest of
this species containing five eggs, as is stated by WILSON, who, probably found a
nest of the Green Heron containing that number among others of the present
species. They measure an inch and three quarters in length, by an inch and a
quarter in breadth, being about the size of those of Ardea candidissima, though
rather more elongated, and precisely of the same colour.
The young bird is at first almost destitute of feathers, but scantily
covered with yellowish-white down. When fully fledged, its bill and legs are
greenish-black, and its plumage pure white, or slightly tinged with
cream-colour, the tips of the three outer primaries light greyish-blue. Of this
colour the bird remains until the breeding season, when, however, some
individuals exhibit a few straggling pale blue feathers. When they have entered
on their second year, these young birds become spotted with deeper blue on some
parts of the body, or on the head and neck, thus appearing singularly patched
with that colour and pure white, the former increasing with the age of the bird
in so remarkable a manner, that you may see specimens of these birds with
portions even of the pendent feathers of their head or shoulders so marked. And
these are produced by full moultings, by which I mean the unexpected appearance,
as it were, of feathers growing out of the skin of the bird coloured entirely
blue, as is the case in many of our land birds. In all these stages of plumage,
and from the first spring after birth, the young birds breed with others, as is
equally the case with Ardea rufescens. You may see a pure white individual
paired with one of a full blue colour, or with one patched with blue and white.
The young, after leaving their parents, remain separate from the old birds until
the next breeding season. At no period can the young of this species be
confounded with, or mistaken for that of the Ardea candidissima, by a person
really acquainted with these birds, for the Blue Heron is not only larger than
the latter, but the very colour of its feet and legs is perfectly distinctive.
Indeed, during the time when the young Blue Heron is quite white (excepting on
the tips of the outer primaries) it would be easier to confound it with the
young of the Reddish Egret, Ardea rufescens, than with that of any other, were
the feathers of its hind head and neck of the same curious curled appearance as
those of that species.
My friend John BACHMAN informs me, that in South Carolina, this species not
unfrequently breeds in the company of the Louisiana Heron, the nests and eggs of
which, he adds, are very similar. He has specimens of these birds in all the
different stages which I have described. At New Orleans, the Blue Herons,
during the transition of their plumage from white to blue, are called "Egrettes
folles," or foolish Enrets, on account of their unusual tameness. My friend
BACHMAN and I, shot, on the 6th and 9th of April, several specimens spotted with
blue feathers, and having their crests and trains similarly mixed, although of
full length; but in most of the specimens obtained, the white was still
prevalent. I have shot some in Louisiana, in autumn, in the same curious dress.
This species, though larger than the Snowy Heron, Ardea calididissima, is
considerably inferior to it in courage; and I was much amused as well as
surprised, when at Galveston Bay, on the 24th of April, 1837, to see one of that
species alight near a Purple Heron, attack it, and pursue it as far as I could
follow them with my eyes. When the Blue Herons are on the seacoast they not
unfrequently repose on the large mud or sand bars, at some distance from the
adjacent marshes; but they generally prefer roosting on trees or bushes, when
there are any in their neighbourhood. The Creoles of Louisiana not unfrequently
eat the flesh of this species, and although they by no means consider it equal
to that of the Night Heron, some of them have assured me that it is not bad
food. Like other birds of this family, they become larger with age, and the
male is usually somewhat superior in size to the female; but, with this
exception, no difference can be perceived in the external appearance of the
BLUE HERON, Ardea cocrulea, Wil,. Amer. Orn., vol. vii. p. 117.
ARDEA COERULEA, Bonap. Syn., p. 300.
BLUE HERON, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 58.
BLUE HERON, Ardea ecerulea, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iv. p. 58.
Male, 24 1/2, 42.
Resident in Florida and Texas, where it breeds. In spring migrates as far
as Long Island; up the Mississippi to a hundred miles above Natchez. Never seen
Adult Male in full plumage.
Bill much longer than the head, rather slender, very slightly decurved,
compressed, tapering to a point. Upper mandible with the dorsal line nearly
straight for two-thirds of its length, then slightly decurved, the ridge convex,
broad at the base, gradually narrowed to the point; a groove from the base to
near the end, the sides convex beneath, the edges thin and sharp, with a slight
notch close to the tips. Nostrils basal, linear, longitudinal, with a membrane
above and behind. Lower mandible with the angle extremely narrow and elongated,
the dorsal line beyond it ascending and almost straight, the sides sloping
outwards, and flattened, the edges sharp and slightly inflected, the tip
Head rather small, oblong, compressed. Neck very long and slender. Body
slender and compressed. Feet very long; tibia elongated, its lower half bare,
very slender, covered all round with angular scales, of which the posterior are
large; tarsus elongated, slender, compressed, anteriorly covered with numerous
broad scutella, laterally and behind with angular scales. Toes long, slender,
with numerous broad scutella above, flattened and reticularly granulate beneath.
Claws rather long, arched, compressed, acute, that of hind toe much larger and
more curved, the inner edge of that of the third finely and regularly pectinate.
Space between the bill and eye, and around the latter, bare. Plumage soft,
thin, and blended. Feathers of the upper and hind part of the head very long,
linear, with loose barbs; of the sides of the neck loose and inclined obliquely
backwards, of its lower part much elongated, narrow, and tapering to a point; of
the middle of the back extremely long, linear, acuminate, their tips projecting
about five inches beyond the tail. Wings long and very broad; primaries broad,
tapering, and rounded, the first, second and third almost equal, the latter
being only a twelfth of an inch longer; secondaries broad and rounded; some of
the inner only half an inch shorter than the longest primary, when the wing is
closed. Tail very short, small, even, of twelve rather weak feathers.
Bill ultramarine blue at the base, gradually shaded into black towards the
point; the bare space between it and the eye, as well as the edges of the
eyelids, ultramarine. Iris pale yellow. Legs, tarsi, toes, and claws, black.
Head and neck of a rich deep purple, inclining to vinaceous; the lower part of
the neck and all the other parts deep greyish-blue, the edges of the feathers
Length to end of tail 24 1/2 inches, to end of wings 25, to end of
elongated dorsal feathers 26 1/2, to end of claws 30 3/4; wing from flexure
11 1/2; tail 4 2/12; extent of wings 42; bill along the ridge 3 4/12, along the
edge of lower mandible 4; bare part of tibia 2 2/12; tarsus 3 5/12; first toe
11/12, its claw 9/12; middle toe 2 1/4, its claw 7/12. Weight 1 lb.
The Female is similar to the male, but smaller. Weight 1 oz.
The young are at first sparely covered with yellowish-white down. When a
fortnight old, the bill is yellow, with the tips greenish-black; the feet
greenish-yellow, the claws dusky, with the tips greyish-yellow. The general
colour of the plumage is pure white, but the down which tips the feathers of the
head is brownish-white; two of the alular feathers are tinged with dull
bluish-grey, and the outer seven or eight primaries are broadly margined on both
sides to the length of about an inch and a half with the same colour of a deeper
tint, the extreme tip white.
When fully fledged, the bare parts at the base of the bill, and the basal
half of the upper mandible, are light greenish-blue, the rest black; the lower
mandible yellow, with a patch of black an inch and a quarter in length on each
side at the end. Legs, tarsi, and toes greenish-blue, the sides yellowish;
claws dusky. The feathers of the head are slightly elongated; those of the back
are also elongated, but much broader and shorter than in the adult. The
feathers on the upper part of the head are of a faint bluish-grey; and the
alular feathers and eight outer primaries are tinged with the same colour. At
this period, the length to the end of the tail is 22 inches, to end of claws 28
1/2; bill along the ridge 2 7/8; wing from flexure 11; tail 4 2/12.
In November, when the moult is advanced. The bill is black, dull blue at
the base. The feet are nearly black, as are the claws. The occipital feathers
are now two inches and a half in length, and some of the dorsal feathers extend
as far as the tips of the wings; those of the lower part of the neck have also a
length of about three inches. The general colour of the plumage is white; the
upper part of the head, the hind neck, back, anterior edge of the wing, and
outer primaries at the end, of a faint bluish-grey tint; some of the elongated
feathers of the back darker.
Length to end of tail 22 inches; to end of claws 29 1/2; bill 3; wing from
flexure 11 1/4.
A year old. Bill nearly as in the adult; feet bluish-black, the plumage is
white, with the upper parts pale greyish-blue as in November, but the whole
interspersed with numerous feathers of a deep greyish-blue, similar to that of
the adult; the primaries and tail being still white.
Length to end of tail 23 1/4; extent of wings 32 1/2; bill 3 1/8. Weight
At the age of a year the bird propagates, so that individuals in the white,
mottled, or blue plumage, may be seen breeding together.
When only a few weeks old, the serrature of the claw of the middle toe is
scarcely perceptible, exhibiting merely faint indications of points upon a very
slight margin. This margin enlarges, and when the bird is completely fledged
the serratures are perfectly formed.
In this bird, as in most other Herons, the crura of the lower mandible are
thin, flexible, and elastic, the angle filled by an elastic membrane covered by
the skin. The tongue is 1 inch long, sagittate at the base, tapering to a
point. The roof of the mouth has a median prominent ridge, and two lateral
lines; the palate is convex; the posterior aperture of the nares 10 lines in
length. The pharynx may be dilated to 1 1/2 inches; the oesophagus, which is 12
inches long, is, when dilated, 10 lines in diameter at its upper part, and
gradually contracts to 7 lines; at the curvature of the neck it lies directly
behind, having passed down on the left side, along with the trachea. Its walls
are extremely thin, contrasting in this respect with the oesophagus of the Great
Northern Diver and other swimming piscivorous birds. The proventriculus is 1
inch long, its glandules cylindrical, and extremely slender. The stomach seems
as if it merely formed a basal sac to the oesophagus, its muscles being
extremely thin, its tendons circular and half an inch in diameter; cuticular
lining soft. The intestine is long and very narrow, 5 feet 10 inches in length,
2 lines in diameter at the upper part, 1 near the rectum, which is 2 3/4 inches
long, with a diameter of 4 1/2 lines, and terminates in a nipple-like coecum,
projecting 3 lines beyond the entrance of the small intestine, but having no
appearance of the two lateral appendages usually called coeca. In this respect,
the Blue Heron agrees with others of the same family. The cloaca is about an
inch in length and breadth.
The trachea, when extended, is 8 3/4 inches long. The rings 170 in number,
are osseous and circular, so that the organ preserves its cylindrical form under
all circumstances. They are, like those of all Herons, of equal breadth on both
sides, not broad on one side and narrow on the other, as has been represented.
The contractor muscles are very slender, as are the sterno-tracheal; the former
send down a slip on each side to the first bronchial ring. The diameter of the
trachea is 2 lines at the upper part, 1 1/2 at the lower. The bronchi are
short, wide, conical, of about 13 half rings.
The right lobe of the liver is 2 1/4 inches long, the left lobe 1 1/2; the
heart 1 1/4 in length, 8 lines broad, of an oblong conical form. The stomach
contained remains of insects and crustaceous animals, together with a few seeds.