Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Nyctanassa violacea (Linnaeus, 1758)

Yellow-crowned Night-heron
Dick Cannings

Aves (Birds)
Ardeidae (Herons, Bitterns, and Egrets)
State Protection
Protected Bird
Defined as a Protected Bird by New York State law, and the species may not be hunted or taken at any time in New York. Includes birds also defined as a game species, but for which no open seasons are set.
Federal Protection
Migratory Bird Treaty Act
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act implements various treaties and conventions between the U. S. and Canada, Japan, Mexico and the former Soviet Union for the protection of migratory birds. Under this Act, taking, killing, or possessing migratory birds, including nests or eggs, is unlawful unless specifically permitted by other regulations.
State Conservation Status Rank
Imperiled in New York - Very vulnerable to disappearing from New York due to rarity or other factors; typically 6 to 20 populations or locations in New York, very few individuals, very restricted range, few remaining acres (or miles of stream), and/or steep declines.
Global Conservation Status Rank
Secure globally - Common in the world; widespread and abundant (but may be rare in some parts of its range).


Did you know?

In 1938, the first nesting Yellow-crowned Night-herons in New York State were reported in Massapeuqa, Nassau County (Cruickshank 1938).

State Ranking Justification

Yellow-crowned Night-herons are uncommon breeders in New York State and are restricted to the Lower Hudson-Long Island Bays (Levine 1998, McCrimmon 2006). This species depends almost entirely on crustaceans for food and could rapidly disappear if food sources become scarce. Increasing coastal development, habitat degradation, and human disturbance are significantly threatening nesting and foraging habitat. (Andrle and Carroll 1988, Watts 1995).

Short-term Trends

The breeding population of Yellow-crowned Night-herons in New York appears to be stable, but fluctuations can occur based on changes in availability of habitat and food sources (McCrimmon 2006). An accurate breeding and productivity census is difficult to obtain, since nests are typically made under dense forest canopy cover and are hard to spot (Watts 1995). A comparison of data from the first Breeding Bird Atlas of 1980-1985 with the second atlas of 2000-2005 shows a slight increase in the number of blocks that reported probable or confirmed breeding of Yellow-crowned Night-herons (20 during the first atlas and 23 during the second atlas). New nesting locations west of Staten Island and further inland along the Hudson river between Rockland and Westchester Counties were also reported during the second atlas. (McCrimmon 2006)

Long-term Trends

Little is known about the range of the Yellow-crowned Night-heron before the 1900s. Between the 1920s and 1960s, they underwent a significant range expansion, during which several northern states reported breeding occurrences for the first time (Watts 1995).

Conservation and Management


Breeding and foraging habitat loss due to climate change and human activity, and human disturbance at nest sites are critical threats to Yellow-crowned Night-herons (Watts 1995, McCrimmon 2006). Shifts in temperature can also have negative effects on the heron's main food source, crustaceans, because the emergence of crustaceans is typically temperature dependant (Watts 1995).

Conservation Strategies and Management Practices

In order to maintain good-quality nesting and foraging habitat for Yellow-crowned Night-herons, habitat management and restoration projects, along with a management plan for colonial-nesting herons, is needed (McCrimmon 2006).

Research Needs

More research is needed on the general biology, ecology, and distribution of Yellow-crowned Night-herons, especially juveniles. Investigation of how their food source being temperature dependent affects the heron's breeding and distribution is also needed. (Watts 1995)



Yellow-crowned Night-herons are colonial nesters, often nesting with Black-crowned Night-herons and other similar heron species. They can be found in marshes, swamps, lakes, lagoons, and mangrove swamps, depending on geographical location. In New York, Yellow-crowned Night-herons nest and feed in low, coastal shrubland, dredge spoil, on salt marsh islands, and in woodlands near swamps, rivers, and harbors in the lower Hudson and Long Island Bays. They will also nest in wooded neighborhoods that are near water and food sources. (Andrle and Carroll 1988, Watts 1995)

Associated Ecological Communities

  • High salt marsh (guide)
    A coastal marsh community that occurs in sheltered areas of the seacoast, in a zone extending from mean high tide up to the limit of spring tides. It is periodically flooded by spring tides and flood tides. High salt marshes typically consist of a mosaic of patches that are mostly dominated by a single graminoid species.
  • Low salt marsh (guide)
    A coastal marsh community that occurs in sheltered areas of the seacoast, in a zone extending from mean high tide down to mean sea level or to about 2 m (6 ft) below mean high tide. It is regularly flooded by semidiurnal tides. The mean tidal range of low salt marshes on Long Island is about 80 cm, and they often form in basins with a depth of 1.6 m or greater.
  • Maritime beach (guide)
    A community with extremely sparse vegetation that occurs on unstable sand, gravel, or cobble ocean shores above mean high tide, where the shore is modified by storm waves and wind erosion.
  • Maritime dunes (guide)
    A community dominated by grasses and low shrubs that occurs on active and stabilized dunes along the Atlantic coast. The composition and structure of the vegetation is variable depending on stability of the dunes, amounts of sand deposition and erosion, and distance from the ocean.
  • Maritime shrubland (guide)
    A shrubland community that occurs on dry seaside bluffs and headlands that are exposed to offshore winds and salt spray.
  • Salt panne (guide)
    A shallow depression in a salt marsh where the marsh is poorly drained. Pannes occur in both low and high salt marshes. Pannes in low salt marshes usually lack vegetation, and the substrate is a soft, silty mud. Pannes in a high salt marsh are irregularly flooded by spring tides or flood tides, but the water does not drain into tidal creeks. After a panne has been flooded the standing water evaporates and the salinity of the soil water is raised well above the salinity of sea-water.

Associated Species

  • Great Egret (Ardea alba) (guide)
  • Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) (guide)
  • Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) (guide)
  • Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor) (guide)
  • Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)


New York State Distribution

New York State is at or near the northern limit of the Yellow-crowned Night-heron's range, with breeding occurrences restricted to the Lower Hudson-Long Island Bays, namely around northwestern Suffolk County, the eastern end and southwestern shore of Long Island, along the northwestern shore of Long Island Sound in Westchester County, and at a few locations in Nassau County, of which several are historical. It is rarely observed inland. (Andrle and Carroll 1985, Levine 1998, McCrimmon 2006)

Global Distribution

The breeding range of the Yellow-crowned Night-heron extends from the eastern coast of North America from Massachusetts to Florida, from Minnesota and Wisconsin south to the Gulf Coast, from central Baja California to central Sonora, central and northeastern Texas, Oklahoma, northeastern Kansas, and along both coasts of Central and South America from Mexico to northwestern Peru and eastern Brazil, the Galapagos, Bahamas, and Antilles. Yellow-crowned Night-herons primarily winter in southern Florida, but they also winter along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to eastern Texas, Baja California, Central America and the Caribbean. (Watts 1995, Levine 1998)

Best Places to See

  • Jamacia Bay National Wildlife Refuge (Kings County)
  • Hempstead Bay Islands (Nassau County)
  • Gateway National Recreation Area (Richmond County)
  • Great South Bay Islands (Suffolk County)

Identification Comments

Identifying Characteristics

The Yellow-crowned Night-heron is a dark-colored, stocky heron with a straight, stout, dark bill. The average adult length is 55-70 cm, with a wingspan of 107 cm. Adults have a buffy-white crown on top of their head with long, white plumes, a black face with white cheek patches, and a slim, gray neck. The body and under parts are bluish-gray. The back and wing feathers are dark gray-blue with a light gray edge, giving them a scaled appearance. Shoulder feathers are similar and often extend beyond the tail. The legs are yellowish green. Juveniles have dusky upperparts with fine white streaks and spots, and dark-streaked underparts. Yellow-crowned Night-herons have several call sounds. The "Scaup" call is often uttered in series when disturbed and when taking flight, and "Whoop" and "Huh" calls can be heard throughout the day, frequently at sunrise and sunset. Nests are typically constructed in trees 5-12 feet above ground and consist of a platform of sticks with a depression in the middle. Sticks used are about 50 cm long and are taken from material surrounding the nest site. Nests may be used every year and get bigger over time. Two to five eggs are laid that are elliptical in shape and pale greenish-blue in color. (Watts 1995, Baicich and Harrison 1997)

Characters Most Useful for Identification

The white crown and cheek patches on adult Yellow-crowned Night-herons are the most distinguishing characteristics.

Best Life Stage for Proper Identification

The adult stage of the Yellow-crowned Night-heron can be easily distinguished from other species. Juveniles are often confused with juvenile Black-crowned Night-herons.


Yellow-crowned Night-herons spend most of their time foraging. They use the "stand and wait, walk slowly" approach to locate food, meaning, they remain stationary until their meal is spotted and then slowly walk to it to catch it. Feeding occurrs throughout the day but during the breeding season, they tend to forage more in the early morning and evening. Yellow-crowned Night-herons typically nest once a season but if the nest fails, they will nest a second time. Egg laying occurs mainly in April-May in the northern part of their range. Clutch size usually is 2-5 eggs. Incubation lasts about 27 days. Adults care for the young for about 37 days and after fledging, the young may return to the nest site to roost for a few weeks. (Spendelow and Patton 1988, Watts 1995).


Yellow-crowned Night-herons feed almost exclusively on crustaceans. Species type varies geographically and on availability. In the northern part of the range, sand fiddler crabs, mud fiddler crabs, and marsh crabs are consumed the most. (Riegner 1982)

Best Time to See

In New York, Yellow-crowned Night-herons return to their breeding areas in the Long Island Bays in April and head for their wintering grounds in early October. A winter sighting in the state is very rare.

  • Active
  • Reproducing

The time of year you would expect to find Yellow-crowned Night-Heron active and reproducing in New York.

Similar Species

  • Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)
    Adult black-crowned night-herons lack the white crown and cheek patches found on the head of yellow-crowned night-herons. Juveniles of both species are often confused. Yellow-crowned night-heron juveniles have heavier bills, longer legs, spots on the under parts, and stand straighter than juvenile black-crowned night-herons. (Watts 1995)

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron Images


Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Nyctanassa violacea (Linnaeus, 1758)

  • Kingdom Animalia
    • Phylum Craniata
      • Class Aves (Birds)
        • Order Pelecaniformes (Pelicans and Cormorants)
          • Family Ardeidae (Herons, Bitterns, and Egrets)

Additional Resources


American Ornithologists' Union (AOU). 1983. Check-list of North American Birds, 6th edition. Allen Press, Inc., Lawrence, Kansas. 877 pp.

American Ornithologists' Union (AOU). 1989. Thirty-seventh supplement to the American Ornithologists' Union Checklist of North American birds. Auk 106:532-538.

Andrle, Robert F. and Janet R. Carroll, editors. 1988. The atlas of breeding birds in New York State. Cornell University Press. 551 pp.

Baicich, P. J., and C. J. O. Harrison. 1997. A guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of North American birds. Second edition. Academic Press, New York.

Bull, John. 1964. Birds of the New York area. New York: Harper and Row Publications 540 pp.

Bull, John. 1974. Birds of New York State. Doubleday, Garden City, New York. 655 pp.

Cruickshank, A.D. 1938. A new breeding bird for New York State. The Auk. 55:660-667.

Levine, E. 1998. Bull's birds of New York State. Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, NY.

McCrimmon, D.A. 2006. Species group report for colonial nesting herons. Pages 33-42 of Appendix A1, Species group reports for birds in: New York State comprehensive wildlife conservation strategy. New York Department of Environmental Conservation. Albany NY.

McGowan, K.J. and K. Corwin, eds. 2008. The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State: 2000-2005. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY. 688 pp.

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. New York Natural Heritage Program Databases. Albany, NY.

New York State Breeding Bird Atlas. 1985. Final breeding bird distribution maps, 1980-1985. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Wildlife Resources Center. Delmar, NY.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Checklist of the amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals of New York State, including their protective status. Nongame Unit, Wildlife Resources Center, Delmar, NY.

Riegner, M. F. 1982. The diet of yellow-crowned night-herons in the eastern and southern United States. Colonial Waterbirds 5:173-176.

Spendelow, J. A. and S. R. Patton. 1988. National Atlas of Coastal Waterbird Colonies in the Contiguous United States: 1976-1982. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Biological Report 88(5). x + 326 pp.

Watts, B.D. 1995. Yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea). In Birds of North America, Number 161 (A. Poole and F. Gill, editors). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and the American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.


About This Guide

Information for this guide was last updated on: December 13, 2007

Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. Online Conservation Guide for Nyctanassa violacea. Available from: Accessed May 26, 2024.