Tracking the National Zoo Night Herons

NZP Black-crowned Night Herons (October 30 2013)

Satellite locations of Black-crowned Night Herons originating from the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.

Every spring, approximately 100 black-crowned night herons show up at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo to initiate breeding. Although the night herons have been nesting here since before the National Zoo was established (check out a video about it), we do not know where these birds spend the winter. Until now! Last August, we began a pilot study to unravel this mystery. Three adult night herons from the rookery at the National Zoo were fitted with satellite transmitters and released. Where did they go??

  • The first heron (red on the map at left) left the breeding site on September 22. Over the next 6 days, it made its way to Fort Meyers, FL –a distance of 1400 km. There it’s stayed for the last month.
  • The second heron (green) left the breeding site on August 15, but stayed in the D.C. area for another two months. On October 16, it left D.C. and flew 100 km. At the moment it’s on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
  • The third heron (orange) left the breeding site on August 13 but has stayed in the D.C. area since then. It continues to stay in the vicinity of the Georgetown waterfront and we wait to see what’s in store for this bird.

Next spring, these birds will return to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. There, visitors will again be able to witness, first-hand, their breeding activities –do they find a mate? do their eggs successfully hatch and fledge? Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether the current locations of these birds are staging areas or final destinations. One thing is certain, we know more now than we did two months ago about where the night herons go when they’re not breeding at the National Zoo. Stay tuned for the next chapter in the lives of these birds!