The Little Blue Heron appears to have a difficult time deciding on what he wants to wear as he goes through his life.
We know that in the spring a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of (drumroll!) -- getting a new outfit. (Did you really think that in a birding article, I was going to say “baseball”?) All mankind recognizes that with the waning of winter and the stirring of spring, the changing from dreary gray drab to light, bright colorful sparkle, (well, at least up north, if not so much here in Florida) it is time to celebrate the freshness of the season with new fashions in keeping with the uplift of the spirit. And so it is in the bird world as well.
One challenge a new birder faces early on arises with the realization that two different plumages must be learned for many species: the plain nondescript basic plumage worn most of the year, and particularly in the winter non-breeding season; and the fancy dress alternate plumage worn for a relatively short time in the spring breeding season, when the birds, like humans, want to look their absolute sexiest best to attract the most promising mate.
Then add, to the new birder’s consternation, the further realization that many species feature young and juvenile plumages that don’t look anything at all like the adult; and sometimes, while changing from juvenile plumage to adult plumage, the bird may, like some teenagers, appear altogether alien
An excellent example of this four plumage learning requirement is provided by the very common Little Blue Heron which starts out wearing a very simple basic white outfit (top, right). After nearly a year of sporting this dress that perplexes beginning birders trying to separate this juvenile Little Blue Heron from the similarly dressed, Great, Snowy, and Cattle Egrets and maybe even White Ibis, (come on, students, remember the gray bill with the black tip and the green legs separates this bird from all the others), the teenager then goes into a plumage change during which it is almost half white and half blue. (middle, right)
Upon reaching adulthood the Little Blue Heron finally sports its blue body, reddish neck and head appearance (bottom, right), but retains the distinctive gray bill with the black tip and green legs of its youth. Finally, the fourth plumage comes into play the following spring when, preparing to breed, the neck and head adopt a slightly richer hue of red, the bill blazes bright blue, and the legs develop a dark shade of green, almost black (left). It doesn’t last long though, for like the wedding dress and tuxedo, bright adornments briefly worn, they are soon discarded for the more mundane dress of everyday wear.
For additional examples of extreme plumage changes check the Black-bellied Plover, Dunlin and Laughing Gull on the St Lucie Audubon photos page.