This is a small dark species of heron with a dark grey head, back and breast contrasting with a rufous belly, wings and tail. When seen in flight the bright yellow legs and feet contrast with the dark feathers of the underside of the body. Juveniles are paler and browner, darkening as they mature.
This is a skulking species which when hiding assumes a bittern-like posture but with its bill in a horizontal rather than vertical position. It usually prefers to hunt on the landward side of well vegetated wetlands and in the shallow water. It is a largely sedentary species, which may make partial migratory movements to follow rainy season inundations of flood-plains. Breeding occurs during the rainy season, or when flooding is at a peak where this occurs early in the dry season. It nests colonially in mixed colonies, typically in small groups of 6-30 pairs, although at Lake Bangwelu in Zambia, groups of 60-80 pairs have been recorded. Rufous-bellied herons feed during the day but will sometimes forage at night, normally they hunt alone or in small flocks of no more than five individuals, although aggregations of over 120 have been recorded. It prefers to roost in trees.
The nest is a small platform of vegetation positioned low in reeds, trees or shrubs that are normally positioned over standing water. In mixed-species colonies rufous-bellied herons normally nest around the edges.
It is found in eastern, central and southern sub-Saharan Africa widespread although absent from the arid south-west and is found in Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
- BirdLife International (2012). "Ardeola rufiventris". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- Sinclair, I. & Ryan P.(2003), A Comprehensive Illustrated Field Guide Birds of Africa South of the Sahara, Struik, ISBN 1 86872 857 9
- Brown, L.H., Urban, E.K, Newman K. (eds) (1982) The Birds of Africa Volume I,Academic Press, ISBN 0-12-137301-0
- Rufous-bellied heron - Species text in The Atlas of Southern African Birds