Heron Vs Stork: Telling Them Apart

Herons are freshwater and coastal birds belonging to the family Ardeidae, while storks are wading birds that belong to the family Ciconiidae. 

Heron and stork populations are well-distributed across the world, with the exception of the Arctic regions where living conditions are extreme. In Singapore, there is an overlap of migratory and residential populations belonging to the different species of both families. 

Members of the Ardeidae family in Singapore are considerably more diverse than those of the Ciconiidae family found here. Aside from the distinctly-coloured Grey and Purple Herons, the familiar white egrets populating our canals and open fields also fall under the same heron family. A more elusive member of the family — the bitterns — would hunt for food around the tall reeds that surround ponds.

Birds belonging to both these families are characterised by similar physical features such as long necks, bills and legs. They are also much larger than the commonly-seen garden birds. Do not bother listening out for their calls for these birds are largely silent unless alarmed. Being carnivorous, they feed on a plethora of animals including fish, crustaceans, reptiles and rodents. 

Given the morphological similarities between storks and herons, it is understandably difficult to distinguish between them. However, their bills, plumages, flight stances and habitats might just give you a clue on their identity! 

Storks vs Herons: Comparison of Bill Sizes

Herons Vs Storks - 1
Asian Openbill Stork (Anastomus oscitans)
Photo credit: Tan Rui Siang

Herons Vs Storks - 2
(Left to Right): Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) and Intermediate Egret (Egretta intermedia)
Photo credit: Tan Rui Siang
 
Storks tend to have much larger bills compared to members of the heron family. Storks’ bills are also thicker and stouter and tend to curve up or down near the tip. Meanwhile, herons tend to have smaller, dagger-shaped bills that taper near the tip. 

Not surprisingly, the bill shapes of these birds are adapted to match their diet! For example, storks like the Asian Openbill Stork have bills that maintain a gap when closed, making it easier for them to extract their favourite meal, the golden apple snail, from their shells. In comparison, herons and bitterns use their bills as spears—rapidly striking fish swimming by.

Bitterns: Masters of Camouflage
 
Herons Vs Storks - 3
Yellow Bittern (Ixobrychus sinensis)
Photo credit: Bok Wen Xuan


While birds from both families can be found near freshwater and coastal environments, storks are more likely to be found nesting on trees and feeding openly in fields and marshes. This is also true for most herons and egrets of the Ardeidae family. 

Bitterns, however, prefer to keep a low profile by hiding among reed beds that are found in well-vegetated water bodies. When alarmed, they adopt a “bittern-stance” by stretching their neck and head skywards. This helps them get a better sense of potential threats lurking in the sky and in front of them, while keeping them well-camouflaged amongst tall reeds. Remaining well-hidden in reeds also allow them to ambush prey more easily.

Foraging Behaviour: Passive Herons, Active Storks
 
Herons Vs Storks - 4
Milky Stork (Mycteria cinerea)
Photo credit: Melvin Yap under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

 
Herons Vs Storks - 5
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)
Photo credit: Bok Wen Xuan


If you ever get a chance to catch these large wading birds in the act of predation, you may notice the differences in the way they forage for food.

Storks are relatively more active hunters than herons. Milky Storks (Mycteria cinerea), one of the three species of storks observed in Singapore, adopt the groping method as they hunt for their prey. They wade through shallow waters with their open bills submerged beneath the water surface, groping for fishes and frogs. The bills then snap shut when unfortunate prey makes contact with it, and the stork’s meal is then tossed into its mouth with a flick of its head!

Meanwhile, herons usually settle motionlessly along the water’s edge for a long time as they wait for an opportune moment to strike unsuspecting fish with their dagger-like bills. Eastern Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus coromandus) are also opportunistic predators and are known to dwell near grazing ruminants who may flush out insects for them to snag. 

Necks in Flight: The Determining Factor
 
Herons Vs Storks - 6
Asian Openbill Stork (Anastomus oscitans)
Photo credit: Jayasri

 
Herons Vs Storks - 7
Yellow Bittern (Ixobrychus sinensis)
Photo credit: Francis Yap

 
Herons Vs Storks - 8
Intermediate Egret (Egretta intermedia)
Photo credit: Tan Rui Siang


Are the subtle morphological differences between herons and storks still befuddling you? The surest way to tell storks apart from herons and their counterparts is from their flight stances. 

Storks fly with their necks fully extended, while herons always retract their necks into a characteristic “S” shape while in flight. However, the retracted “S” shaped neck is more pronounced and noticeable in larger heron species than those of bitterns and smaller herons like the Striated Heron (Butorides striata) and Pond Herons (Ardeola sp.). These species tend to possess fluffy neck feathers that conceal their necks!

List of species observed in Singapore

 

Ardeidae

Ciconiidae

Herons

Egrets

Bitterns

Black-crowned Night Heron

Chinese Egret

Black Bittern

Asian Openbill Stork

Chinese Pond Heron

Eastern Cattle Egret

Cinnamon Bittern

Milky Stork

Great-billed Heron

Great Egret

Von Schrenck’s Bittern

Painted Stork

Grey Heron

Intermediate Egret

Yellow Bittern

 

Indian Pond Heron

Little Egret

 

Javan Pond Heron

Pacific Reef heron

Malayan Night Heron

 

Purple Heron

Striated Heron

 

For more information

Want to learn more about herons, egrets and bitterns? During this stay at home period, you can do so even without leaving your house! Learn more through our interactive e-learning module, accessible via Chrome, Apple Safari or Mozilla Firefox browser on desktops or laptops. 

For more information about the flora and fauna found in Singapore, please visit Flora and Fauna Web.


Text by Ling Chyuan Liang Benedict


About the writer

Benedict Ling is a final year Life Sciences undergraduate from the National University of Singapore. He is currently undergoing a 6-month internship with NParks for his Final Year Internship project. While being attached to the Biodiversity Information and Policy branch in the National Biodiversity Centre, he assisted in the organisation of Heron Watch and the Biodiversity Week for Schools programme. His passion for ecological fieldwork and interest in spreading the word about our local biodiversity led him to choose NParks as his organisation of choice for his internship.

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