Egret, crane or heron? How to tell which bird you have seen

Two big white birds — rehabilitated trumpeter swans — live on the Kenue Park wetland, but last week we also spotted three more white birds.

Egrets? Cranes? Herons?

We were trying to figure out what they were but we couldn’t see their necks, because it was breezy and they had their heads hunkered down. However, I could clearly see it was tall, had dark legs and had a fully yellow beak. It looked like this:

great egret


We quickly ruled out that they were cranes. Whooping cranes aren’t in Iowa, and sandhill cranes aren’t common in northwest Iowa. Plus, both cranes have red patches around their eyes, and this bird definitely didn’t have any coloring on its face. Cranes also have shorter beaks than herons and egrets, and the bird that we saw had a long, thick beak.

Sandhill crane

That narrowed down the choices to an egret or a heron, although an egret is technically a type of heron. It didn’t look like a great blue heron, because it was an all-white bird, and great blue herons have a distinctive gray-blue color with a black band behind the eye. However, we learned while researching that great blue herons do have an all-white color morph called the great white heron. Their legs are a yellow color, like that of the great blue heron, so this is not what we saw. Plus, the great white heron is usually only found in southern Florida.

Great blue heron

That led us to knowing that what we saw was some kind of egret.

Cattle egrets and snowy egrets are smaller than what was in the wetland. Cattle egrets have lighter legs, and snowy egrets have black legs with yellow feet. Snowy egrets also have black beaks that are quite thin. Cattle egrets and snowy egrets are also found farther south than Iowa for the most part.

That meant that what we saw was a great egret. This bird grow 38-39 inches tall and has a thick yellow beak as well as black legs and feet.

great egret

Great egrets live in both freshwater and saltwater habitats, and they wade in shallow water to hunt. They stand still and watch for prey to pass by, striking out quickly with their long necks and bill.

Great egrets have all white feathers, but they do get dressed up for breeding season. During that time, a patch of skin on its face, by its eye, turns neon green, and long plumes grow from its back.

Learn how to tell the differences among these creatures in our other blog posts:
Mink, ermine or weasel?
Chorus or leopard frog?
Coyote or wolf?
Osprey or bald eagle?
Moth or butterfly?


  1. Sue Grove on January 16, 2020 at 4:17 am

    Please .ca you help. Found a leg white bird looking just like an egret but has webbed feet.