Wild South Florida — Tricolored Heron
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Tricolored Heron
tricolored heron
Tricolored heron, photographed at Green Cay Nature Center, Boynton Beach, Palm Beach County.
tricolored heron

The tricolored heron, Egretta tricolored, is a common uncommon bird. It's probably the most likely of all herons to be spotted at places like Green Cay or Wakodahatchee. Yet tricolored numbers are small enough statewide — and dwindling in some places — that Florida officially lists it as a species of special concern.

The reasons for the bird's decline aren't fully understood, according to a 2011 study undertaken by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Factors could include loss of habitat through development, degradation of habitat, increased recreational use of foraging and breeding grounds and pressure from predators. Like other wading birds, tricoloreds are at risk from exposure to pesticides and heavy metals.

Beyond that, changes in water flow and levels (hydrology) could be affecting foraging, breeding and roosting sites by diminishing prey. Add oil spills to the list of threats.

Tricolored are medium sized herons, mostly a slate blue with hints of red around the neck and back and a mostly white underside. It has a simiilar mix of colors as the great blue heron, but with a body length of about 22 inches and a wingspan of 38 inches, it's half the size of its larger cousin. Little blue herons are about the same size as the tricolored but are much more blue and have a distinct blue bill to the tricolored's yellow-orange. Immature tricolored herons are more of a reddish brown on the head and neck and shoulders, so much so that they look like the reddish egret. However, the tricoloreds,  again, have that yellow-orange bill, while reddish egrets have a pink bill. Tricoloreds also have more white in the neck and chest.

tricolored heron dancing

Tricoloreds are found throughout Florida, more common in coastal areas than inland, and more in Central and South Florida than in North Florida. They are year-round residents of the state. In breeding season, tricoloreds can be found along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts as far north as Massachusetts, and also along portions of Southern California's Pacific Coast. They're also found on both coasts of Mexico, through the Caribbean, Central America and South America. Tricoloreds up north retreat south in winter. Though "threatened" in Florida, globally they are in good shape.

They are fish eaters and picky ones at that. They tend to hunt more medium-sized fish off a more select menu. When their preferred prey becomes scarce, most herons will substitute other items; not tricoloreds. Instead, they will change foraging methods and strategies in order to find what they want to eat.

In Florida, tricolored breeding season begins in early March. Males select a nest site within a colony of wading birds. Females do most building, while males gather the sticks. A pair will have one brood a year, with three to seven eggs each. Incubation takes three to four weeks. The mortality rate is high — 30 percent of hatchlings die before reaching two weeks. The first to hatch tend to have an advantage in getting food from mom and dad over their younger siblings — for them, starvation is a real threat. Tricoloreds are members Ardeidae, the family of egrets and herons. The tricolored once was known as the Louisiana heron.

tricolor chicks tricolored heron juvenile tricolored heron
More Links for Tricolored Heron Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology Audubon Society National Geographic
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