Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

If you’ve ever been in or around the Florida Everglades and seen a slender lilacky-mauve, stone blue, and white colored bird jovially foraging alone in coastal waters, you’ve likely spotted a Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor). Once known as the Louisiana Heron, this spry medium-sized waterbird is native to coastal regions of North, South, and Central America. Their sleek multicolored plumage helps them easily stand out among other herons in the wild, as do some of their stealthy, animated mannerisms. Rest assured that this wetland inhabitant is much more than just a pretty face. 

Like me, Tricolored Herons call Florida home year-round and so it’s yet another bird I see frequently during my wildlife photography encounters. Whether it’s gallantly sprinting back and forth in shallow water or artfully wading with their belly submerged in a coastal lagoon, as with most things in life, there’s always something to see if you’re willing to be patient and look for it.

Some Basic Information About the Tricolored Heron

  • Scientific Name:  Egretta tricolor
  • Order: Pelecaniformes
  • Family:  Ardeidae (herons, egrets, and bitterns)
  • Conservation Status: Stable; Low concern
  • Size & Wingspan: Approximately 22 to 30 inches tall; 38-inch wingspan
  • Lifespan: 17 years old on average


The Tricolored Heron really is quite lovely to look at. Conspicuously slim, these particular herons are moderate in size, standing at a varied 22 to 30 inches tall, with a 38-inch wingspan. They weigh a modest 14.6 ounces on average—just under one pound. There are some notable differences in size and color between sexes of Tricolored Herons. Males are slightly taller and weigh about three ounces more than their female counterparts. And while they share the same colorful breeding plumage, the hues found on males are more dynamic and eye-catching than those on females.

For a size comparison of the Tricolored Heron, think smaller than a Great Egret or Great Blue Heron, but larger than a Snowy Egret or Little Egret.

Tricolored Herons have long legs, with four sharp toes—three in the front, one in the back. Their necks are a lanky ‘S’ shape, attached to a small head with golden yellow lores and an exceedingly lengthy black and yellow bill. Unlike other dark colored herons, they are the only ones to have white under-bellies, but the rest of their plumage differs between juveniles and adults.

Adult Non-Breeding Tricolored Herons

Mature non-breeding Tricolored Herons have smooth bluish-gray and lavender feathers on their heads, necks, backs, and upper wings, with a distinctive white stripe down the neck. Their bellies are white, as are the underside of their wings. They have long yellow legs, brown eyes, and pink irises.

Breeding Tricolored Herons

Breeding Tricolored Herons share the same stone blue, light purple, and white feathers, but additionally sport orangey plumes around their throats and necks and small white plumes on their crowns. They also develop delicate sandy-gray plumes on their neck and back. The area around their lores becomes bright cerulean blue, their legs turn pink, and their irises morph into a striking ruby red. Albeit, these birds are not quite as vibrant as the Roseate Spoonbill, but they are no less stunning.

Juvenile Tricolored Herons

Young Tricolored Herons have reddish feathers mixed in with their gray plumes on their wings and backs, with necks that are a rusty shade of orange. Their irises are a yellowish white and their legs are the shade of Dijon mustard.

Tricolored Heron Calls

Tricolored Herons are generally quiet birds that don’t make a whole lot of noise unless they’re in their rookeries, like this juvenile in the photo on the left.

Both males and females utilize a couple distinct calls, consisting mainly of low guttural croaks and nasally squawks. Most of their vocalizations happen during moments of aggression or in defense of their territory, which sounds reminiscent of a tiny donkey, grunting a scratchy, “aahrr”.


Given that this bird was once called the “Louisiana Heron”, it’s not surprising to hear that they flourish in swampy ecosystems. Seen year-round in the United States along the East and Gulf Coasts, Tricolored Herons do best in coastal areas with an abundant supply of fish. They’re commonly found in bayous, lagoons, estuaries, wetlands, river deltas, swamps, mudflats, mangroves, salt marshes, bays, freshwater marshes, lake shores, ditches, ponds, canals, and lowland shores.

Where Can I See a Tricolored Heron in Florida?

If you’re planning a trip to the Sunshine State and you’re looking for a good place to check out local wildlife, then the Florida Everglades or any of the surrounding wetlands must be on your list. It will give you ample opportunities to see a Tricolored Heron live and in-person.

Look first at shallow coastlines or estuaries with dense vegetation for a slate gray and purple feathered bird stalking prey either alone in a corner, or among groups of other wading birds like Snowy Egrets, Reddish Egrets, Double-crested Cormorants, and Little Blue Herons—their white undercarriage will be a dead giveaway.

A Tricolored Heron In Flight

When coasting the skyline, Tricolored Herons make direct flights, no odd formations, or sloppy aerial displays. They fly with their heads pulled into their chests and their yellow feet lagging behind. Their broad wings are pointed and deliver quick pumps of steady wingbeats as they soar through the air.

Behavior and Feeding

Tricolored Herons are diurnal, meaning they hunt for food during the day. When searching for a bite to eat, they prefer to forage alone, and even go as far as to keep others away from where they’re feeding with aggressive squawking and wing waving. With that being said, it’s not uncommon to see them fishing on the outer fringes of groups of various other birds in the wader family.

Tricolored Herons are clever and are known to follow behind other foraging birds like the Double-crested Cormorant, waiting for them to stir up their next meal. You know what they say: work smarter, not harder!

These handsome water birds stick to shallow waters and employ a stalking technique, crouching silently, belly-deep, waiting for fish or crustaceans below to cross their path. Sometimes, they’ll pick up the pace, just a bit, and walk ever-so-slowly, waiting for the perfect moment to strike their pointy, long beaks.

Other times, they introduce a little more intensity, by flapping their wings for shade and quickly darting back and forth at schools of fish while mimicking ballet-like dance movements. The small talons on their toes are also used to help mix-up sediment at the bottom and wrangle unsuspecting aquatic life. They’re really versatile fishers, switching up their methods based on their habitat and surroundings.

What Do Tricolored Herons Eat?

Tricolored Herons are carnivorous piscivores, meaning their diet is very heavy on fish—primarily small fish like Topminnows, Mosquitofish, Killifish, and Sailfin Mollies.

They also eat shrimp, prawns, crawfish, beetles, grasshoppers, salamanders, small frogs, snails, tadpoles, spiders, lizards, leeches, and worms.





Nesting and Displays

They’re mostly solitary when searching for food, but are exceptionally social nesters, often breeding in large colonies of assorted egrets, herons, and other wetland birds. Males are territorial over their chosen nest site so intruders—including potential mates in the beginning—are met with hostility when trying to encroach upon their living space.

Tricolored Heron Nests

Nests built and occupied by Tricolored Herons are typically created two to 30 feet above the ground, usually in elevated and isolated areas of dense vegetation.

They’re typically found in shaded areas in trees, thickets, willows, coastal scrubs, or mangroves. They measure about 13 inches in diameter and consist of a rickety platform made of sticks and twigs and lined with grasses and other fine foliage. It’s finished with a hollow indentation at the center, perfect for holding small eggs.


Nesting and Courting Displays

The male Tricolored Heron finds his shaded nesting spot and starts base construction with loosely placed sticks. He then proclaims it as his own with alpha displays of twig shaking—my personal favorite, crest raising, dominating posture stances, jabbing their wings in midair, preening, and fluffing their neck plumes.

Only then can he begin the second act: a serenade of quirky dances and mannerisms meant to catch a suitable lady’s watchful eye. These intricacies include circular flight patterns, neck stretching, feather puffing, accelerated preening, low bowing, beak clapping, twig dancing, snapping, and raspy “unh” sounding mating calls.

Once the female has chosen him as her suitor, they can begin the process of constructing the nest. She builds it artfully, using the materials he’s gathered for her. All that’s left once they’re finished is filling it with a brood of eggs. And here’s a fun fact: Occasionally, Tricolored Herons will crossbreed with Snowy Egrets. The more you know…

Even after the male and female Tricolored Heron have paired, they continue to greet one another with a theatrical welcome upon arrival at the nest. The incoming bird carries a twig in their bill and while fluffing their feathers, first looks up, then quickly down, intently handing it off to his or her mate.

Eggs, Parenting, and Maturation

Mating pairs of Tricolored Herons lay anywhere from two to seven eggs once a season, but average three to five. Eggs are a pale aquamarine color and measure about 1.8 inches in length and 1.3 inches wide.

Both mom and dad keep the eggs warm until they hatch—about 21 to 25 days later. Chicks hatch over a period of several days, which gives the first born more foraging and fighting experience—an advantage that affords them a higher survival rate compared to its younger brothers and sisters.

The coparenting doesn’t stop with incubating the eggs. Each parent aids in feeding their young once they’ve hatched. Meals are high in protein, consisting of regurgitated fish and insect bits. At around three weeks old, baby Tricolored Herons will start trying to climb out of the nest, by five weeks they’re usually ready to take their first flight.

Another fun fact? Squabbles in the nest among children and parents can get heated. As Tricolored Herons age, juveniles get slightly more aggressive and often snap at mom and dad when they return to home for feeding. To mitigate their outbursts and lighten the mood, adults bow at their children upon arrival. Oh, the civility!


Life Cycle

Data suggests that Tricolored Herons live to be 17 years old in the wild, a modest number compared to other wetland birds. It’s likely because these herons, especially in pairs, are easily able to fight off threats and nest intruders. Essentially, the most difficult tasks are surviving adolescence and sibling rivalry for food. Of course, Tricolored Heron chicks also have to be alert for the usual predators including, horned owls, crows, raccoons, and ravens. If they can make it into adulthood, they’ve likely got a long life ahead of them.

Tricolored Herons and Other South Florida Wildlife Photography

One of the things that baffles me the most about wild birds, even after all the time I’ve spent taking pictures of them, are all their extraordinary differences. The complexity of them is alluring and each encounter is unique. If there is anything I can teach you, I hope it’s to appreciate the beauty of wildlife as Mother Nature intended us to see it.

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