Ardea melanocephala - The Black-headed Heron

This black-headed heron is a large, elegant member of the Ardeidae family. Although it looks very much like its grey-headed relative, it can be distinguished by the black-on-white strip on its head. The black-headed heron’s bill, legs, head and throat are all black, against which the yellow eyes and brown back are quite striking. The white underwing coverts can be seen during flight.

Did you know? The Black-headed Heron is known as the Swartkopreier in Afrikaans, the Isikhwalimanzi in Xhosa and the uNokilonki in Zulu.

Like other herons and bitterns, this species has a slow flight speed, which it accomplishes while keeping its head retracted. This is unlike storks and cranes, which extend their necks during flight and appear elongated.


Range weight: 690 – 730 g
Range height: 85 cm
Range wingspan: 150 cm.


The black-headed heron prefers habitats that are rich in grassy plains and open savannahs. Since it feeds in shallow waters, it is also found in reedy marshes, coastal creeks, next to rivers and lakes, or around temporary pools. They are not strictly migratory, but will move in response to the availability of food.


This heron has its natural habitat all across sub-Saharan Africa. It is fairly scarce in Namibia, Mozambique and Botswana, but is prolific in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Further north, it can be found from Senegal to Ethiopia and southwards. In South Africa, you may see them at the President Ridge Bird Sanctuary or the Lonehill Nature Reserve (both in Johannesburg), Turfloop Nature Reserve outside Polokwane, or the Kap River Nature Reserve near Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape.


The majority of the black-headed heron’s diet comprises land insects, but it is also known to dine on reptiles, small birds and mammals. These include beetles, scorpions, skinks, centipedes, mole-rats, vlei rats, laughing doves, and cattle egret chicks and eggs, when available. The heron stalks its prey by moving slowly and deliberately through the grasses and reeds, swaying its head from side to side. Once it sees a potential victim, it stands dead-still before striking it powerfully with its bill and impaling or seizing it.


The black-headed heron is largely sedentary, meaning that they will only migrate in response to a depletion of food. They are happy to nest in colonies of mixed bird species, often consisting of as many as 200 other birds. Generally, they hunt alone, but are not opposed to the idea of hunting while in a loosely-congregated feeding flock. A heron may travel up to 30 kilometres a day between its preferred feeding ground and its roost. This is a monogamous bird, sticking to one partner for life.


The black-headed heron uses a loud croaking call to communicate with others of its kind, usually in attracting a mate.


These birds build their own bulky nests out of sticks, leaves and straw. They will position the nests in trees, on cliffs, or behind the protection of the tall reeds.

The male will use a loud yelp to attract a mate. Once the breeding pair has mated, she will build the nest from the materials that he gathers and then she will lay between 2 and 4 eggs in it. Both the male and the female are responsible for incubating the eggs until they hatch. Little is known about these chicks until they fledge, which happens at around 52 days of age, a week after which they become completely independent of the care of their parents.

Up to 35 breeding pairs can be found in one large tree, making this a very social, gregarious time for the adult birds.


Eggs are incubated for between 23 and 27 days.

Life Expectancy

Although difficult to estimate, the average life expectancy of this heron is around 5 years in the wild.


The black-headed heron has an ample population and does not face any major threats. Of course, pollution damages the habitats of all of the animals near it, and this bird is no exception.


Biodiversity Explorer; Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth edition; BirdLife International; Birds in SA.

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Where to see Black-headed Heron in their natural habitat?

Want to see Black-headed Heron in their natural habitat? In South Africa, the Black-headed Heron is fairly common and can be seen in many reserves, parks and gardens, including...

Conservation Status
Black-headed Heron
Kruger Park's Big 6 Birds
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