Typically described as nocturnal, black-crowned night-herons are often seen foraging in Lincoln Park during the day. In its second year of an ecological restoration, North Pond, just to the Zoo’s north, is also used by green and great blue herons, double-crested cormorants and Caspian terns, to name a few. Its restoration will enhance the many benefits it provides urban wildlife. The fencing, strings and flags in the background were installed to protect aquatic plant installations from grazing by ducks and geese.

November 1, 2023

Chicago’s Urban Heron Story: A Natural Marvel in the Heart of the City; A Hope for the Future?

Photos courtesy Amy Lardner

Two people admire a small bird perched on a fence on the edge of a park in a city.
Once young night-herons begin to practice flying, Lincoln Park Zoo’s fence becomes a landing strip. Juvenile herons’ youthful inexperience means they sometimes hang out on the fence, surprising and delighting passersby, while providing another opportunity for public education about these birds.

Imagine you are strolling towards Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo (LPZ). It’s a balmy mid-May evening. Though dusk is settling, the park bustles with rush hour energy. Trundling buses snort as they stop for commuters. Cars honk. You share the sidewalk with tots in strollers pushed by parents, people with dogs, groups of young people in sports leagues, even bicycle and scooter riders who should be on the road. You may notice other languages beyond English, from Japanese to Yoruba, Spanish to Serbian. This beautiful lakefront park and zoo is a popular destination for residents from all over the city and region, and for tourists. The sun slipping below high-rise buildings to the west casts the sidewalk in shadow as you walk along LPZ’s long wrought iron fence.

Suddenly, you notice something unusual is drawing people’s attention. People stop abruptly and look up, pointing into the trees inside LPZ’s fence. You hear excited exclamations: “What is that?” “An owl? Hawk? Penguin?!” Suddenly, a large bird flies out from the trees. A person standing by the fence is asked “Do you know what those birds are?” Smiling, the person replies “Yes! They are black-crowned night-herons, a wild bird and state-endangered species. They’ve chosen to nest in this zoo!”

A small crowd gathers, eager to learn more about these creatures. People are noticing even more birds clustered in this section of LPZ. Sometimes compared to dinosaurs, the birds emit gruff “qwoks” as they depart the rookery (rookery is a name for dense groups of nests) to find food for their chicks, the source of the metronome-like “chick-chick-chick” sounds creating a symphony of unexpected sounds on a quintessential Chicago spring evening. These birds are about 2 feet tall, with a 4-foot wingspan. The spectacle of their red eyes, black heads and shoulders, long black bills, pink (if ready to breed) or yellow legs (if not), gray wings, cream-colored bellies, and long white plumes brings people together to marvel at their unexpected presence.

Four black and gray birds sit in nests made of sticks in the canopy of trees during the early spring before leaves have leafed out on the tree branches.
Early spring makes for good views of nests and courtship rituals. Some people comment these stacked nest clusters resemble the condominium and apartment buildings visible over the treetops to the west. This can open up a discussion of why herons nest in colonies, and what benefits – including increased safety and help feeding offspring – this offers.

In the 17 years since the first night herons nested in Chicago’s Lincoln Park (at least in recorded history since Lincoln Park’s late 19th century establishment) their annual return has become a beloved local tradition. Their presence introduces many to birding and conservation, capturing the hearts of children and adults alike. You may witness a young child, closely followed by her parents, eagerly running down the sidewalk. The child shouts with excitement as she races along, counting and pointing out every black-crowned night-heron she spots: “Another one! There’s another! And another! Wow! That’s 10, 14, 23…”. Perhaps she and her little brother are egging each other on to find more. Together with their parents, they are having a magical encounter at LPZ, but with a group of wild birds that travel throughout Chicago.

Not everyone in Chicago is equally enthralled by this urban wildlife happening. Some decry the noises the birds make, the fishy smell of their diet, the splashes of guano, and the fact that the area the rookery is concentrated in is closed when the chicks start hatching.

To address these concerns, LPZ created a covered walkway to allow continued access to the popular indoor climbing structure within the rookery, while adding informational signage about the herons. Interns and volunteers are often stationed nearby, ready to help visitors get excited about these wild birds.

A 2021 construction project brought awareness that this population had become the last known breeding rookery of black-crowned night-herons in Illinois and galvanized action. Advocacy by the volunteer Chicago Black-crowned Night-heron Project with the Bird Conservation Network led to funding for the new research described in the companion article.

A brown and tan speckled bird with long legs and beak perched on a tan box outside the iron fence of a zoo.
This juvenile night-heron was investigating the foraging possibilities of the trash bin just outside Lincoln Park Zoo’s main entrance. Like other colonial waterbirds that have adapted to urban life, night-herons have added dumpster-diving to their foraging routines.

While black-crowned night-herons are currently considered of least conservation concern worldwide, regionally, their vulnerability in the face of habitat loss and degradation is a pressing issue. The New England Bird Observer’s June 2023 article titled The Precipitous Decline of Black-crowned Night-herons in Massachusetts and the Northeast underscored regional conservation risks these birds face. They are at some level of conservation risk in 38 United States. They have long been considered a species of concern by Audubon Great Lakes.

The annual return in early spring of hundreds of night-herons to Chicago is not just a Lincoln Park, or a Chicago, phenomenon. The return of this active breeding population of hundreds of birds is a city-wide and regional experience. These birds, capable of flying at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, disperse throughout the city and region daily in search of food, following repeated patterns of movement throughout the season.

This season, for the first time in Chicago, satellite tracking of birds has resulted in a map of the movements of individual birds while foraging. Possibilities that have long been suspected are being verified. Birds from the LPZ rookery fan out to different foraging spots, from Chicago’s Douglass Park on the southwest side to Montrose in the north; from the 31st Street Harbor on the south side to busy Navy Pier in the central area; from Skokie Lagoons to downtown’s river walk. They forage in park ponds and lagoons, plunge off docks, piers and seawalls for alewife, and alight on boats. Quiet, stealthy, opportunistic predators, they can be seen around the city and region, hunched by the side of waterways, looking for fish, or roosting (napping) in trees. They are known to use tools, such as sticks or bait, or tactics such as vibrating their bills, to attract fish.

Their ability to navigate the city is remarkable. People see them flying in various directions from the rookery during nesting season, including high rise residents along Lake Michigan who regularly notice squadrons of night-herons flying past their windows around dusk. These are birds of Chicago, out on the town.

A photo collage of images of birds. One photo is of birds perched on tree limbs in a wetland, another is of a bird perched on a street light in a city, and the last image is of a small bird wading along the shoreline of a lake near a concrete pier.
Clockwise from left: Montrose Dunes Natural Area, known for hosting a successful breeding pair of federally endangered Great Lakes Piping Plovers for three years, also offers good spots for hatch-year night-herons learning to forage. Fledging herons’ first tentative flights lead them across the street from Lincoln Park Zoo, where trees and lampposts become landing zones. At South Pond, another naturalized pond near the Zoo, young herons’ plumage camouflages them well against the landscape.

Regular rookery visitors watch the rapid transformation of newly hatched chicks from tiny fuzzy dinosaurs barely visible over the edge of their nests, to gangly fuzzy-headed juveniles beginning to master flight. As they gain flight confidence, they begin to branch out from the pond within LPZ to nearby North and South Ponds and then further. This past season, sometimes large groups of more than 70 were seen at a time at South Pond. Their brown and cream speckled plumage blends so well with the snags (dead trees) left in the ponds for wildlife that they sometimes went unnoticed by park visitors.

Despite being such a large and active group, they can be elusive. As you travel around Chicago, it may be easy to overlook their presence, but they are there, weaving their lives into the urban tapestry.

Urban environments, however, come with unique challenges for night-herons. One such challenge is fishing line entanglement, which caused injuries and fatalities for several birds in the colony this year. This underscores the need for increased public education to promote responsible fishing practices such as the removal of fishing lines and the importance of packing out fishing litter and trash. Education is also crucial to preventing accidental hooking and informing people how to handle such situations with care.

As urban parks and preserves encourage more outdoor recreational activities, instilling a sense of personal responsibility and a “leave no trace” ethos becomes paramount. This responsibility is not just for the benefit of the black-crowned night-herons, but for the well-being of all wildlife and the urban environment as a whole.

A photo collage of various images of young brown and tan speckled birds with long legs and beaks. Some of the images are of birds snuggled in nests and others are images of the birds foraging, preening, or perching in various environments including urban and natural areas.
From tiny dinosaur-like creatures, to fledged birds on their own, hatch-year night-heron’s progression lasts just a couple of months. From the top row and then proceeding down each row from left to right, the birds grow fast, from young chicks in their nests, they begin to climb around the rookery at around four weeks, start to fly at 6 weeks, and soon venture outside of Lincoln Park Zoo to forage on South Pond and elsewhere. The rookery continues to be home base for a while after their parents’ have left – siblings will return to rest together in their natal nests. Sometimes, a sleepy young heron will just flop down for a nap, as seen in the first photo on the second row.

Will the Chicago Black-crowned Night-heron Project lead to the recovery of this species in Illinois? While it’s a hope, there are no quick fixes. The journey begins with research to learn more about the herons’ movements, habitat preferences, and how to encourage them to establish new nesting sites. But the future of the black-crowned night-heron in Illinois also depends on land use and land management decisions. A big achievement would be to lift the restoration and maintenance of heron nesting habitat to one of the top priorities for ecological restoration plans and ongoing conservation efforts.

When you witness black-crowned night-herons raising their families in the heart of the city, you can’t help but be captivated by the beauty and resilience of these remarkable creatures. Their ability to thrive amidst the urban jungle reminds us of the critical importance of conservation efforts to protect these birds and the natural wonders within our shared urban spaces. Additionally, the herons’ foraging movements and their post breeding season dispersal movements prove that our urban spaces have vital connections with the diverse suburban and rural areas these birds also use for foraging and respite, within the Chicago region, adjoining states, and wherever they overwinter.

We hope 2023 was but the first step in a long-term project that will help raise the profile of this long-endangered Illinois species, benefit its conservation, and help more humans become as captivated by them as their loyal crew of Chicago fans is.

Amy Lardner grew up in the Quad Cities, the daughter and niece of sportsmen and conservationists. Her childhood spent trailing bird hunters and field dogs instilled in her a lifelong love of Midwestern landscapes, while her youthful foray into bird conservation advocacy—organizing her fourth grade class to send letters to their congressman advocating for the American bald eagle, and her gardening mother’s enthusiasm for native plants, stuck with her even during her post MBA years working in finance in the automotive industry in the U.S. and internationally. Lardner now divides her time between the Chicago Black-crowned Night-heron Project, the volunteer advocacy project she created, being a volunteer Openlands Treekeeper, serving on the board of her Chicago neighborhood’s association, and getting out birding, hiking, travelling and visiting friends and family whenever she can.

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Question: I’m located in far northeast Illinois in Antioch on the Chain of Lakes. We have a small black crowned night heron rookery on my lake. I have seen at least 5 juveniles at one time and I can locate at least 3 nests. Is there someone I should inform of the bird’s presence?