Question: Are Egrets and Herons the same thing?
– SIB Member at recent SIB Bird Walk
Answer: SIB’s Bob Mercer provided this response:
The short answer—Egrets and herons are closely related. Generally, Egrets are white birds and Herons dark, but that does not really tell the true story. The scientific study of taxonomy separates all living things into smaller and smaller increments until the get down to the species level. This breakdown results from finding similarities based upon body structure and now genetics. You may remember learning in your high school biology classes that the last three taxonomic categories are Family, Genus, and Species. One might think of things in at the Family level of being comparable to cousins, the Genus would be siblings, and the species the individual.
All herons and egrets reside taxonomically within the bird family Ardeidae, which means they are closely related. This family is broken down into 18 genera. If the above statement held true – herons dark and egrets light, the white birds would be in the same genus. Oh how nice it would be if life were so simple. It does not work that way. Currently even taxonomists struggle with assigning these birds into the appropriate genus. According to Birds of the World, the current accepted breakdown has the birds within this grouping breaks out as follows. Within the genus Ardea, one finds our Great Blue Heron and Great Egret. Within the genus Egretta, we find Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, and Tricolored Heron. This certainly does not follow the white dark breakdown. Furthermore, the Green Heron, the Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and Cattle Egret all reside in different genera.
Reference: Winkler, D. W., S. M. Billerman, and I. J. Lovette (2020). Herons, Egrets, and Bitterns (Ardeidae), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, B. K. Keeney, P. G. Rodewald, and T. S. Schulenberg, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.ardeid1.01