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What is a Boat-Billed Heron?

By J.M. Densing
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The boat-billed heron is a bird that lives near water and has a wide scoop shaped bill that resembles a boat. It is a medium-sized bird with colors in shades of white, black and gray. Its scientific name is Cochlearius cochlearius. It lives primarily in Central and South America. It's a carnivore, and most often hunts for food at night, using its beak as a means for catching food.

An adult boat-billed heron grows to a length of about 18 to 21 inches (46 to 54 cm). It has large eyes that bulge out a little from its face, and a sizable, wide, black, scoop shaped bill that resembles a small rowboat. The top of the head, also called the crown, and the upper back are black, and the wings and the lower back are grey. The breast, throat, and face are all white, most of the underside is a reddish brown color, with parts of the lower sides being black. Young birds are pale brown below, with a darker shade of brown on the upper parts.

The native area where the boat-billed heron is found stretches from Mexico in Central America all the way south to Brazil and Peru in South America. Like most herons, it is a water bird preferring to live near freshwater lakes, streams, and marshes. The boat-billed heron is also commonly found in the mangrove swamps, where it can use the trees for nesting and protection during the day.

The diet of the boat-billed heron consists mainly of insects, fish and small crustaceans; it will also eat small mammals and amphibians on occasion. They normally hunt for food at night, and rely quite a bit on the boat-shaped bills for catching food. They walk through the shallow water and use their bills to scoop up prey like shrimp and other bottom dwellers. The bird's bill is super sensitive and open with the lightest touch, like a passing fish brushing against it, to draw in water and prey. They also use the bills with a stabbing motion to catch prey such as fish or amphibians.

At breeding time, which usually occurs during the rainy season, the boat-billed heron uses calls and displays like bill clattering or preening to attract a mate. The nests are built out of twigs, and are usually located in the mangrove trees or in other trees or bushes. The female typically lays two to four bluish colored eggs which both parents incubate for about 26 days. When the babies hatch they are cared for in the nest by both parents, who will feed them at night and protect the nest from harm.

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