Aptly named, this beautiful water bird that lives in the Americas (originally called the Louisiana heron in North America) has slate-gray upperparts and bright white underparts, with reddish stripes on its neck. The Tricolored heron becomes even more colorful during the breeding season, when its bill turns bright blue and has a black tip, its neck feathers become bluish-purple, its legs deep pink, a crest of white develops on its head, and its neck and shoulder plumage turns violet. Very slender, with a long bill and neck and long legs, this heron often wades belly-deep within coastal lagoons.
This species lives in southern and eastern North America (along the coast of Maine, in Texas, and along the coasts of Mexico), in the coastal areas of Central America, in the West Indies, and along the South American coasts to Brazil at the mouth of the Amazon River and across to the Pacific Coast off northern Peru. It inhabits shores and shallow marshes, mudflats, mangroves, bays, and swamps that have woodland cover because often it perches in trees.
Tricolored herons are a migratory species. They are diurnal, usually solitary, and defend their hunting area strongly, charging at other invaders of the same species, as well as other wading species. They generally stand in shallow water to seek their prey, usually walking quickly, but, depending on the habitat, they may run rapidly through the shallow water with their wings partly raised, sometimes with one foot far forward, vibrating their foot rapidly on the bottom to flush out prey. They will change their foraging strategy to be able to continue to catch their preferred prey. Tricolored herons are usually silent when not in the breeding colonies, but when flushed they produce a harsh, nasal croak. Their common call sounds like a loud sharp “kyowk”.
Tricolored herons are monogamous, with a male mating with only one female, a female mating with only one male. When a pair has bonded, the male chooses a nesting site and they begin to build a nest of sticks. Nesting runs from early to mid-March. Nests are built on a bed of reeds or in a tree. 3 to 4 eggs are laid, blue to blue-green in color. Incubation is for about 21 days. Hatching occurs over several days and the first chick born is more likely to survive than the second, and so on. Once all the chicks have hatched, it takes about 35 days for them to start to fly. Both parents care for the young and gather food for them. Once fledged, the chicks will look after themselves.
The Tricolored heron is threatened in some parts of its range due to disturbance, pollution, and habitat loss. While nesting, it is especially vulnerable to human interference, as breeding birds may abandon their nests, leaving their brood defenseless against exposure and predators. Occasionally this bird is hunted for food, including its eggs. Culls are occasionally permitted where there are aquaculture farms in order to limit this species’ predation of farmed crustacean stocks. The heron population in the Florida Everglades has been in decline due to habitat degradation and the associated decrease in food.
This species has an extremely large range. According to the Heron Conservation resource, the total population size of the Tricolored heron in the U.S. exceeds 200,000 birds. It is common in Suriname, with 10,000 pairs and there are 5,000 in Guyana. The All About Birds resource records that the U.S. breeding population is no more than 194,000 birds. Overall, currently, Tricolored herons are classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and their numbers today remain stable.
Due to their diet, Tricolored herons may affect fish populations in their range.