Waterbirds are among the largest groups of bird species in the United States. Cranes and herons are members of that group and their similar appearance can cause confusion as to which one is being observed. North America claims two species of cranes and six heron species. Several subspecies make their home in the United States as well. Knowledge of subtle differences between the two can make you an expert birdwatcher.
Types of Herons
Subspecies of herons include the snowy and great egret and white ibis. All exhibit white feathers but the snowy egret presents a "shaggy" appearance. The white bis displays black wing tips and red legs.The tricolored and great blue heron are blue grey in color; the great blue has a white head with black stripe while the tricolored has a white belly. The green- and black-crowned night herons are smaller than the previous types and the yellow-crowned night heron has a white stripe beneath its eyes.
Types of Cranes
Comparatively, the crane family claims only two native species in North America. The whooping crane is considered endangered because of over-hunting and contact with high-tension power lines. Whooping cranes are tall birds with white plumage, a black "mask" over and under the eyes and a red beak. The sandhill crane is primarily white but exhibits brown wing tips and tail feathers, a red forehead and a straight neck. This bird also faces danger from power lines.
Characteristics of Cranes
Whooping cranes primarily call the American West home while sandhill cranes can be found throughout the United States. Both birds reach 4 to 5 feet and have wingspans up to 7 1/2 feet. Whooping cranes have shorter legs than sandhill cranes but both straighten their necks in flight. Crane nests are found on the ground in wetlands. Both native species eat small vertebrates, plants and seeds.
Characteristics of Herons
Herons are mainly found in marshy wetlands ranging throughout the United States. Vertebral configurations allow for an S-curve in their necks, maintained in flight. Size ranges from 4 feet down to the size of common crows. Most of the heron species nest in trees or shrubs along with hundreds of other herons. The diet of the heron consists mostly of fish, frogs and insects stabbed with its long bill.
Differing Characteristics of Cranes and Herons
Often mistaken for each other, cranes and herons are different in many ways. Although cranes eat fish like herons, they will use their bills to dig in the ground for food. Herons will stalk their marshland prey and use tools to attract food. Herons mostly nest among several hundred of their species while cranes tend to build solitary nests. Cranes in flight extend their necks straight and herons exhibit an S-curve.Herons exhibit a wide range of color combinations and sizes, while the two American crane species are close in size and color.