Living Bird Magazine
Great Blue HeronArdea herodias
- ORDER: Pelecaniformes
- FAMILY: Ardeidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Garza Azulada (Spanish)
- Grand Héron (French)
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.
- Cool Facts
- Despite their impressive size, Great Blue Herons weigh only 5 to 6 pounds thanks in part to their hollow bones—a feature all birds share.
- Great Blue Herons in the northeastern U.S. and southern Canada have benefited from the recovery of beaver populations, which have created a patchwork of swamps and meadows well-suited to foraging and nesting.
- Along the Pacific coast, it’s not unusual to see a Great Blue Heron poised atop a floating bed of kelp waiting for a meal to swim by.
- The white form of the Great Blue Heron, known as the "great white heron," is found nearly exclusively in shallow marine waters along the coast of very southern Florida, the Yucatan Peninsula, and in the Caribbean. Where the dark and white forms overlap in Florida, intermediate birds known as "Wurdemann's herons" can be found. They have the body of a Great Blue Heron, but the white head and neck of the great white heron.
- Great Blue Herons have specialized feathers on their chest that continually grow and fray. The herons comb this “powder down” with a fringed claw on their middle toes, using the down like a washcloth to remove fish slime and other oils from their feathers as they preen. Applying the powder to their underparts protects their feathers against the slime and oils of swamps.
- Great Blue Herons can hunt day and night thanks to a high percentage of rod-type photoreceptors in their eyes that improve their night vision.
- Great Blue Herons congregate at fish hatcheries, creating potential problems for the fish farmers. A study found that herons ate mostly diseased fish that would have died shortly anyway. Sick fish spent more time near the surface of the water where they were more vulnerable to the herons.
- The oldest recorded Great Blue Heron was found in Texas when it was at least 24 years, 6 months old.
- Thanks to specially shaped neck vertebrae, Great Blue Herons can quickly strike prey at a distance.