Black-crowned night herons are statuesque birds that look as though they are wearing black capes and hoods. They have piercing red eyes and long white plume feathers that trail off the nape of their necks.
Adult black-crowned night herons at Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo.
They don’t begin their lives looking quite that majestic, however. If you’ve been to Nature Boardwalk recently, you might have wondered what those gawky, brown-and-white-streaked birds were. They don’t look much like their parents, but those are juvenile black-crowned night herons. They are especially likely to be found in the trees in the park just south of the boardwalk. They can also be seen walking around the shore of the island and in the shallows around the pond’s edge.
The coloration of the young birds is different from the adults. Here you can see that the young herons are well camouflaged with their surroundings. There are two herons in the picture, but you might not see them right away.
The herons are learning to fly now, and zoo biologists are documenting their progress. The process of learning to fly is called fledging, and a bird that has wing muscles and feathers adequately developed to begin flying is referred to as a fledgling. Sometimes it may seem as though a fledgling bird is struggling, but this is all part of the natural learning process. They will develop the muscles and skills needed to be an adept flyer over time and with accumulated experience.
A fledgling tries out its wings.
We are very pleased that this colony of birds chose to breed at Nature Boardwalk. Black-crowned night herons are endangered in Illinois. Having them nest here provides zoo biologists with a unique opportunity to learn more about these rare animals. Be sure to look for these adolescent birds taking their first flights at Nature Boardwalk and cheer them on!
Photos courtesy of Alison Brown and Carolyn Mazan.