Comparing Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons

Comparing Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Heron adults

The adult Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons aren’t terribly difficult to tell apart though the juveniles can be more of a challenge.

Black-crowned Night Herons have red eyes, a black crown and white plume, a short white to pale gray neck, a very pale gray belly, a solid black back and pale yellow legs that a red during breeding season. Black-crowned Night Herons have a black bill that is shorter and more slender than a Yellow-crowned Night Heron. They appear chunky and squat compared to a Yellow-crowned Night Heron.

Yellow-crowned Night Herons have orange-red eyes,  a white crown with a slight yellow tint & white plume, they have a black head with a white cheek patch, a long slender gray neck and belly, a gray back with a pattern and yellow legs. Yellow-crowned Night Herons have a thick black long bill. They appear slender compared to a Black-crowned Night Heron.

Comparing Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Heron juveniles

The juveniles are slightly more difficult to ID but some features make them easier to identify.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Herons are chunky and squat like the adults and have short necks. The bill of a juvenile is dark on top and green to yellowish on the bottom, the lores are sometimes a greenish color and the wings have large white spots on a brown back.

Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Herons are slender in appearance and have long slender necks. The bill of a juvenile is mostly black and the back and wings have fine spots and the overall color is darker than a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron.

Additionally, geographic location should be taken into account when making an identification in that Black-crowned Night Herons have a much larger range that covers most of the United States into southern Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Yellow-crowned Night Herons are found mainly on the east coast of the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Comparing Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons isn’t all that difficult if you know what to look for.



  1. Karen Bonsell January 24, 2013 at 7:25 am

    Great tutorial Mia! We have plenty of Black-crowned around here, but sometimes Yellow-crowned have been spotted! I’ve often wondered if I would know if I was seeing a Yellow-crowned! It really helps to see them side by side & for you to point out the differences!

  2. Kathiesbirds January 23, 2013 at 1:26 am

    Mia, what a wonderful post comparing these 2 species! Very well done and informative.

  3. Matthew Sim January 22, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    Great comparison!

  4. Sam Brunson January 22, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    Awesome pics, Mia! Having pictures of the birds side by side is a great way to recognize the differences and memorize how to tell the differences between them.

    • Mia McPherson January 24, 2013 at 9:36 am

      Thanks Sam, I tried to pick images that would show the differences well.

  5. eric c11 January 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    fantastic !!! thanks mia ☺

  6. Prairie Birder January 22, 2013 at 10:25 am

    It’s so easy when they’re side-by-side!

  7. Julie G. January 22, 2013 at 10:00 am

    These are excellent comparison photographs, Mia! Very cool birds!

  8. Sherry in MT January 22, 2013 at 8:17 am

    Quite a difference when you actually see them side by side. Nice comparison Mia.

  9. M. Firpi January 22, 2013 at 8:07 am

    This is so instructional and well designed Mia, thanks. When I was in FL, I saw a Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron and got the ID messed up.

    • Mia McPherson January 24, 2013 at 9:33 am

      Maria, I got the ID’s messed up too when I first started photographing them in Florida.

  10. Scott (@NESASK) January 22, 2013 at 7:59 am

    Excellent article and terrific comparison photos, Mia.

  11. Fern Culhane January 22, 2013 at 7:27 am

    Back in the 80’s and 90’s there was a large rookery of herons ( I thought black crowned at the time) at the National Zoo in Washington, DC! I was visiting with my sons who were quite young at the time, so I couldn’t stay as long as I might have to watch! Impressively noisy!
    Appreciate the comparative looks, great tutorial. Thank you!

    • Mia McPherson January 24, 2013 at 9:32 am

      Thanks Fern, I wonder if the rookery is still there at the National Zoo.

  12. Robert Mortensen January 22, 2013 at 7:15 am

    Excellent side-by-side format Mia!

  13. Laurence Butler January 22, 2013 at 6:46 am

    Great comparison photos Mia, I love hoe you’ve got the respective species squaring off with its cousin. Family rivalry!

    • Mia McPherson January 24, 2013 at 9:31 am

      Laurence, I wonder if where their ranges overlap if there is some sparring that goes on for territory, had not thought of that until now.

  14. Bob Bushell January 22, 2013 at 5:55 am

    Brilliant shots Mia.

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