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Great Blue Heron

Ardea herodias ORDER: PELECANIFORMES FAMILY: ARDEIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Whether poised at a river bend or cruising the coastline with slow, deep wingbeats, the Great Blue Heron is a majestic sight. This stately heron with its subtle blue-gray plumage often stands motionless as it scans for prey or wades belly deep with long, deliberate steps. They may move slowly, but Great Blue Herons can strike like lightning to grab a fish or snap up a gopher. In flight, look for this widespread heron’s tucked-in neck and long legs trailing out behind.

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Keys to identification Help

Herons
Herons
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Largest of the North American herons with long legs, a sinuous neck, and thick, daggerlike bill. Head, chest, and wing plumes give a shaggy appearance. In flight, the Great Blue Heron curls its neck into a tight “S” shape; its wings are broad and rounded and its legs trail well beyond the tail.

  • Color Pattern

    Great Blue Herons appear blue-gray from a distance, with a wide black stripe over the eye. In flight, the upper side of the wing is two-toned: pale on the forewing and darker on the flight feathers. A pure white subspecies occurs in coastal southern Florida.

  • Behavior

    Hunting Great Blue Herons wade slowly or stand statue-like, stalking fish and other prey in shallow water or open fields. Watch for the lightning-fast thrust of the neck and head as they stab with their strong bills. Their very slow wingbeats, tucked-in neck and trailing legs create an unmistakable image in flight.

  • Habitat

    Look for Great Blue Herons in saltwater and freshwater habitats, from open coasts, marshes, sloughs, riverbanks, and lakes to backyard goldfish ponds. They also forage in grasslands and agricultural fields. Breeding birds gather in colonies or “heronries” to build stick nests high off the ground.

Range Map Help

Great Blue Heron Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Great Blue Heron

    Adult
    • Large, graceful heron with long neck and legs
    • Stout yellow and gray bill
    • Crown striped with black and white
    • Blue-gray body
    • © Marie Read
  • Adult

    Great Blue Heron

    Adult
    • Very long neck and legs
    • Large, dagger-like bill
    • Gray body with rusty thighs
    • Black and white striped crown
    • © Brian Guest, Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, March 2009
  • Juvenile

    Great Blue Heron

    Juvenile
    • Broad, two-toned wings
    • Long legs and slender, curving neck
    • Dark crown and gray body
    • Black-and-white striped throat and breast
    • © Helen Pine, Florida, March 2008
  • White form "Great White Heron"

    Great Blue Heron

    White form "Great White Heron"
    • Common in Florida Keys
    • Pure white overall
    • Heavy yellow bill
    • Dull yellow-gray legs
    • © Jim Gilbert, Marathon, Florida, April 2007
  • Juvenile

    Great Blue Heron

    Juvenile
    • Solid dark crown
    • Black and white striped throat and neck
    • Two-toned bill
    • Uses long bill to spear fish
    • © Greg Bishop, Merritt Island NWR, Titusville, Florida, October 2007
  • Adult feeding nestling

    Great Blue Heron

    Adult feeding nestling
    • Adult with black and white striped crownand blue-gray body
    • Juvenile with solid black cap and dusky gray body.
    • © Helen Pine, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida, February 2008
  • Adult at nest

    Great Blue Heron

    Adult at nest
    • Large, bulky stick nest usually built in tall snag near water
    • Long legs
    • Gray body
    • Black and white striped crown
    • © Cameron Rognan, Ithaca, New York, June 2009
  • Adult in flight

    Great Blue Heron

    Adult in flight
    • Broad, two-toned wings
    • Long legs trail behind body
    • Heavy yellow bill
    • © Judy Howle/GBBC, Columbus, Mississippi
  • Adult breeding

    Great Blue Heron

    Adult breeding
    • Adults develop wispy plumes on breast and back of head in spring
    • Bold black and white striped crown
    • Blue-gray body
    • © Kurt Hasselman, Assateague Island, Chincoteague, Virginia, March 2011

Similar Species

  • Adults

    Sandhill Crane

    Adults
    • Similar from a distance but easily distinguishable from Great Blue Heron
    • Shorter black bill
    • Shorter neck and heavier body
    • Pale cheek and red crown
    • © Laura Erickson, Florida, December 2005
  • Adult

    Great Egret

    Adult
    • Similar to white form of Great Blue Heron, "Great White Heron"
    • Black legs
    • Thinner, bright orange-yellow bill
    • No head plumes
    • © Robert Baker, Virginia, September 2007
  • Adult

    Little Blue Heron

    Adult
    • Easily distinguishable from Great Blue Heron
    • Much smaller and slimmer
    • Dark slaty-blue overall
    • Pale blue/gray bill with black tip
    • © Russ C
  • Adult

    Tricolored Heron

    Adult
    • Similar from a distance but easily distinguishable from Great Blue Heron
    • Smaller and slimmer with longer, more slender bill
    • Dark, grayish blue upperparts
    • White belly
    • © Ken Schneider, Florida, February 2009

Similar Species

The Great Blue Heron’s massive size and white in the face separates it from other dark herons such as Little Blue Heron and Tricolored Heron. Sandhill Cranes are more uniformly gray, and adult Sandhills have a vivid red crown. In flight, a Sandhill Crane keeps its neck outstretched and flies with snappy wingbeats, flicking its wings quickly upward. Great Blue Herons fly with their heads pulled back against their shoulders and have smooth, deliberate wingbeats, barely raising their wings above horizontal. Sandhill Cranes are less widespread than Great Blue Herons and are typically seen in flocks. Great Blue Herons travel solo, except if you catch them during migration when you might see up to 10 together. The white subspecies of the Great Blue Heron, the “great white heron” of the Florida Keys, is larger than a Great Egret and has yellow legs, not black, legs.

Regional Differences

An all-white subspecies, the Great White Heron, is found in coastal areas of southern Florida, along with individuals that are intermediate in plumage (showing a grayish body with a mostly white head and neck), known as “Würdemann’s Heron.”

Backyard Tips

Great Blue Herons aren’t likely to visit a typical backyard. However, they are sometimes unwelcome visitors to yards that include fish ponds. A length of drain pipe placed in the pond can provide fish with a place to hide from feeding herons. Herons, like most of our birds, are legally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

If you are near appropriate habitat, consider building a nest platform to attract herons. You can get plans for Great Blue Heron nest platform on our All About Birdhouses site.

Find This Bird

Scan shorelines, river banks, and the edges of marshes, estuaries, and ponds across much of the U.S. for this tall, slow-moving heron. Great Blue Herons also feed in meadows, farmland, and other open fields. Some colonies or “heronries” are found near developed areas; look for the herons’ bulky stick nests high in trees. And once you recognize their slow wingbeats and massive silhouettes, you’ll start to notice these birds in flight high in the sky as well.