Fr: Héron mélanocéphale
Ang: Black-headed Heron
All: Schwarzhalsreiher
Esp: Garza Cabecinegra
Ita: Airone testanera
Nd: Zwartkopreiger
Sd: Svarthuvad häger


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Black-headed Heron
Ardea melanocephala

Pelecaniformes Order – Ardeidae Family

The Black-headed Heron is a large heron in the subfamily Ardeinae within the large family Ardeidae. This sub-Saharan species is partially migratory and sometimes nomadic, and moves in response to rainfall and food availability.
It is a typical heron, something like a darker version of the Grey Heron.
The species is mainly terrestrial and feeds typically by walking slowly among grass and rarely in shallow water. It also stands motionless, waiting for preys.
The Black-headed Heron is widespread and common throughout the range, but it is patchily distributed and rarely abundant.

Length: 92-96 cm
Weight: 710-1650 g

The Black-headed Heron adult has mostly grey body including back, wings, tail and underparts. Neck and back show lanceolate plumes. The underwing shows black flight-feathers and white wing-coverts. Chin and throat are white with black speckles on the foreneck.
The black of the head extends from forehead down to hindneck. The lores are yellow and green. The eyes are yellow, but they become orange and later red during the breeding season. The long, pointed bill is black above and greenish-yellow on the lower mandible. Legs and feet are mostly black.
Male and female are similar.

There are some variations in plumage with much paler wings and back, contrasting strongly with black head and neck. The white areas may vary too, with some birds lacking the white patch on the foreneck, others with no white at all, or tinged rufous on the lower throat.
There is a very rare dark morph with black underparts.

The juvenile is paler with buffy-white underparts, some pale rufous on throat and breast, and dark grey or brownish-grey head and neck.

The Black-headed Heron is found in sub-Saharan Africa and occurs from Senegal to Eritrea and S to South Africa.

The Black-headed Heron frequents mainly grasslands and often occurs in fairly open country, in damp pastures and partially flooded grasslands, marshes, along rivers and lakes, in estuaries, cultivated areas, forest clearings and coastal flats.
In the South African range, it forages both in terrestrial and semi-aquatic habitats. It often occurs in human altered environments and even nests in towns. It rarely forages in water.

The Black-headed Heron’s typical calls are a loud “aaaaak” and squawking and nasal calls. On landing, it gives a series of calls “kow, owk, errr, kut, kut, kut”.
During the forward display, it gives a harsh “kaak” whereas soft “how-oo” is produced during the stretch display.
They communicate through cackles, croaks and bill-clapping.

The Black-headed Heron usually forages solitary by walking slowly through the grass. It walks by lifting the feet high, with erect head and neck stretched backwards. Once the prey is located, it sways the head from side to side with increasing speed, and strikes the victim with its bill. But like numerous Ardeidae, it also feeds by standing motionless and waiting for preys. It often feeds at night.

It feeds on wide variety of invertebrates and small vertebrates, mainly terrestrial preys but also some aquatic ones.
Its diet includes rodents, insects (Orthoptera, Coleoptera, Centipedes and scorpions) earthworms, lizards, snakes, frogs, birds, fish, crustaceans and spiders.
In South Africa, it feeds mainly on large rodents and many birds in December/January. Fish and amphibians are taken in wetlands.

They may occasionally forage in flocks. However, outside breeding season and at roost, they gather in large flocks, tens to hundreds of birds.

During the breeding season, the Black-headed Heron defends its area by giving “kaak” calls while performing a Forward Display towards the intruder.
But it also performs courtship displays. In the Stretch Display, the bird points its bill upwards while exposing the white chin and throat. It utters the “how-oo” call and produces a soft gurgling. Other display shows the heron with raised crest and fluffed neck. Physical contact with the bill occurs, while the bird runs its bill up and down the back and flanks of its mate.
Louds calls from both mates are part of the greeting ceremony that accompanies every action at nest until incubation begins. The copulation occurs at the nest-site, on the partly built nest. They are monogamous and usually breed in colonies, often mixed-species heronries.  

The Black-headed Heron is partially migratory and movements are related to the dry season, but they may vary according to the range. The northern population migrates during the rainy season to nest in the Sahel and between Sudan and Guinea. In other parts of Africa, they move to drier areas during the rains.
The Black-headed Heron is more sedentary in equatorial and southern Africa. The dispersion of the juveniles is impressive and over fairly long distances.

The flight is slow but strong with steady wingbeats. They use flapping flight both in migrations and between the breeding colonies and the feeding areas.

The Black-headed Heron breeds mainly during the rainy season, but also year round depending on the region.
It breeds often in small mixed colonies of 200 nests or more, and sometimes more than 30 nests are built in the same tree. They usually nests high in trees, and less often in reedbeds or on the ground.
The flimsy nest is made with twigs, but fresh twigs with green leaves are added at the beginning of the nesting period. Usually, the male collects the nest-material, and both adults build the nest in about two weeks. It is placed between 8 and 30 metres above the ground. They usually produce a single brood, and only occasionally two or three.

The female lays 2-3 pale blue eggs (2-6) and both adults incubate during 23-27 days. At hatching, the chicks have pale grey down and yellow eyes. They are fed at nest by regurgitation. They fledge at 40-50 days, but they return to the nest for feeding. They are independent about 60 days after hatching. The young are often preyed upon by birds of prey.

The Black-headed Heron is patchily distributed but it is common and widespread. Its range has expanded in recent decades, because this species has benefited from human altered habitats.
The population size is unknown but it is suspected to be increasing with new areas of suitable habitat.
The Black-headed Heron is currently evaluated as Least Concern.