Bird Tales

Majestic herons move into modest summer home in Casa View Dallas

Majestic herons move into modest summer home in Casa View Dallas

This yellow-crowned night heron is making itself right at home. Photo by Marc Lee

Editor's note: This is the first installment of a series about the yellow-crowned night heron by Marc Lee, a resident of the Casa View neighborhood of Dallas.

The Casa View neighborhood in northeast Dallas is known for its modest yet affordable homes, Mexican markets, and mature trees.

And some of those mature trees are a spring home to the majestic yellow-crowned night heron.

These birds are a colorful member of the heron family, sometimes referred to as egrets, known for their long legs and appetite for crustaceans. Yellow-crowned night herons live in the east and southeast part of Texas, as well as Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida, usually near or above water.

Casa View has been a residential neighborhood since it was built in the 1950s, but the area is still at the edge of the herons' natural habitat, says Gailon Brehm, regional director of the Texas Ornithological Society, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of birds in Texas.

"Their summer range is the U.S. Southeast, half of Texas, and parts of Kansas, Arkansas, and the Atlantic coast," he says.

The herons come here from as far away as southern Mexico, where they live on the coasts, hunting crabs, crayfish, and other crustaceans.

Since I moved here three years ago, I've enjoyed the annual spring arrival of a majestic yellow-crowned night heron, who has made himself a summer bachelor pad in the Live Oak tree in my front yard.

He shows up during March spring break, making his presence immediately noticeable when he soars in, with a wingspan that stretches nearly three feet — larger than the usual sparrow, crow, or blue jay found on my suburban street.

His appearance is far more dramatic: striped gray and black feathers, long yellow-orange legs, white eye patches, penetrating red eyes, and atop it all, a crown of pale yellow feathers.

Males build a nest in hopes of luring in a female partner. In prior years, he came solo and would hang out in the tree by himself — striking out with the ladies.

But this year, he finally got lucky: He has a mate.

Like the male, the female has a stocky body and a thick neck, and shorter legs than the usual heron; male and female yellow-crowned night herons look alike. They're said to remain monogamous; some maintain their bonds from year to year.

I watch them build their bowl-shaped nest, high in the treetop hidden in dense foliage, with him plucking dead twigs from my neighbor's pecan tree, while she waits in the oaks, overseeing the process.

Brehm says the female bird is the boss: "The male builds the first nest — if the female doesn’t like it, they build another," he says.

I get accustomed to their routine, napping, random squawking, and regular flights around the neighborhood. They seem content, and I like having two to watch.

One day in April, another new thing happens. On the ground underneath their tree, I find a cracked egg shell. It’s empty, about the size of a chicken egg, and a pale blue. The next day I find another.

There is another chapter to this story.