The family Ardeidae, in the order Ciconiiformes, is a family of long-legged, long-beaked birds with short tails. Their habit of flying with their head pulled back distinguishes them from cranes. During courtship the males develop specialized plumes for display; it was these plumes which led to the near-extinction of several species by feather-hunters when the feathers were in demand for decorating women's hats and men's military dress hats. The family of approximately sixty-five species is found on all continents except Antarctica; thirteen species occur in North America. They are usually found in or near wetlands, where they feed on a variety of invertebrate and vertebrate prey.
Ten species have been reported for Saskatchewan; all are migratory. The most common and largest is the great blue heron (Ardea herodias), which occurs south of the boreal forest. This large bird (~120 cm in length) is often seen standing at the edge of a river or lake, waiting until it can spear a fish. It usually nests in colonies which are found in the tops of tall trees along water margins. The other widespread and often encountered species of the southern half of the province is the black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), a smaller species with black crown and back, which is found around permanent marshes. A species which was once more widespread and heard more often than seen is the American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). It was seldom seen, hiding in the reeds and cattails of marsh edges in the southern half of the province and giving its “pump-handle” call. Its presence in the reeds is hard to discover owing to its camouflage pattern of brown stripes the colour of dead cattails. Its recent decline may be due to habitat change by draining of wetlands or to the reduction in population numbers of large frogs.
The great egret (Ardea alba) occurs regularly but rarely in the wetlands of the southern third of the province. It is nearly as tall as the more common great blue heron, but white with a yellow bill. A recent entrant is the white cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis), an African species which became established naturally in northern South America in the late 1800s and has since successfully colonized Central and North America. It was first reported in Saskatchewan in 1974 and can be expected, with climate change, to continue to expand its range and numbers.
Five small herons rarely appear in the province; since the reports are of single individuals along the southern border, they are considered strays, off-course during migration. These are the least bittern (Ixobrychus exilis), snowy egret (Egretta thula), little blue heron (Egretta caerula), green heron (Butorides virescens), and yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea).