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Ardea melanocephala (Black-headed heron)

Swartkopreier [Afrikaans]; Isikhwalimanzi , Ukhwalimanzi (terms also applied to Grey heron) [Xhosa]; uNokilonki (also applied to Grey heron) [Zulu]; Ebo (also applied to Goliath heron) [Kwangali]; Kokolofitoe -hloontšo [South Sotho]; Kôkôlôhutwê [Tswana]; Zwartkopreiger [Dutch]; Héron mélanocéphale [French]; Schwarzkopfreiher [German]; Garça-de-cabeça-preta [Portuguese]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora > Aves (birds) > Order: Ciconiiformes > Family: Ardeidae

Ardea melanocephala (Black-headed heron) Ardea melanocephala (Black-headed heron)
Black-headed heron, West Coast National Park, South Africa. [photo Trevor Hardaker ©] Black-headed heron, Rondevlei Nature Reserve, South Africa. [photo Trevor Hardaker ©]
Ardea melanocephala (Black-headed heron) Ardea melanocephala (Black-headed heron)
Black-headed heron juvenile, Tsitsikamma National Park, Western Cape, South Africa. [photo Duncan Robertson ©] Black-headed heron, Strandfontein Sewerage Works, Western Cape, South Africa. [photo Trevor Hardaker ©]

Distribution and habitat

Occurs across sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal to Ethiopia south to southern Africa, where it is common in Zimbabwe and South Africa while more scarce in Namibia, Botswana and Mozambique. It generally favours open grassy habitats, sometimes moving into marshes and floodplains in southern Mozambique.

Distribution of Black-headed heron in southern Africa, based on statistical smoothing of the records from first SA Bird Atlas Project (© Animal Demography unit, University of Cape Town; smoothing by Birgit Erni and Francesca Little). Colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common). See here for the latest distribution from the SABAP2.  

Predators and parasites

Movements and migrations

Resident and sometimes nomadic, moving in response to food availability.


It mainly eats terrestrial insects, supplemented with small mammals, reptiles and birds, doing most of its foraging solitarily. It hunts by slowly and purposefully moving through the grass, rocking its head from side to side; when it spots prey, it freezes and then strikes with its bill. The following food items have been recorded in its diet:


  • Monogamous and usually colonial, breeding in small, mixed-species heronries. The male calls from a perch to attract a mate, raising its head and giving a loud yelp, sometimes extending its bill vertically as it does so.
  • The nest is mainly built by the female with material provided by the male, consisting of an untidy platform of twigs, lined with leaves and other soft material. It is typically placed in the canopy of a tree or in a reedbed, rarely on a cliff ledge or the ground of a small island.
  • Egg-laying season is year-round, peaking during the wettest months of the year.
  • It lays 2-4 eggs, which are incubated by both sexes for about 23-27 days.
  • The chicks development is not well-known, other than that they leave the nest at about 52 days old, becoming fully independent roughly a week later.


Not threatened, in fact it has benefited from habitat disturbance and agriculture.


  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.