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    Great Blue Heron Life History


    Habitat MarshesGreat Blue Herons live in both freshwater and saltwater habitats, and also forage in grasslands and agricultural fields, where they stalk frogs and mammals. Most breeding colonies are located within 2 to 4 miles of feeding areas, often in isolated swamps or on islands, and near lakes and ponds bordered by forests. Back to top


    Food FishGreat Blue Herons eat nearly anything within striking distance, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, insects, and other birds. They grab smaller prey in their strong mandibles or use their dagger-like bills to impale larger fish, often shaking them to break or relax the sharp spines before gulping them down.Back to top


    Nest Placement

    Nest TreeGreat Blue Herons nest mainly in trees, but will also nest on the ground, on bushes, in mangroves, and on structures such as duck blinds, channel markers, or artificial nest platforms. Males arrive at the colony and settle on nest sites; from there, they court passing females. Colonies can consist of 500 or more individual nests, with multiple nests per tree built 100 or more feet off the ground.

    Nest Description

    Male Great Blue Herons collect much of the nest material, gathering sticks from the ground and nearby shrubs and trees, and from unguarded and abandoned nests, and presenting them to the female. She weaves a platform and a saucer-shaped nest cup, lining it with pine needles, moss, reeds, dry grass, mangrove leaves, or small twigs. Nest building can take from 3 days up to 2 weeks; the finished nest can range from a simple platform measuring 20 inches across to more elaborate structures used over multiple years, reaching 4 feet across and nearly 3.5 feet deep. Ground-nesting herons use vegetation such as salt grass to form the nest.

    Nesting Facts
    Clutch Size:2-6 eggs
    Number of Broods:1-2 broods
    Egg Length:2.4-3.0 in (6.1-7.6 cm)
    Egg Width:1.8-2.0 in (4.5-5 cm)
    Incubation Period:27-29 days
    Nestling Period:49-81 days
    Egg Description:Pale blue, fading slightly with age.
    Condition at Hatching:Bluish eyes open, chick covered in pale gray down, able to vocalize.
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    Behavior StalkingGreat Blue Herons forage, usually alone, across much of the U.S. This largest of the North American herons wades slowly or stands stock still, peering into the water for prey. In flight the Great Blue Heron folds it neck into an “S” shape and trails its long legs behind, dangling them as it prepares to land or when courting. Breeding birds nest in colonies that can number several hundred pairs, where they build stick nests in trees, on bushes, or on the ground. If you visit a colony, look for elaborate courtship and pair-bonding displays that include a ritualized greeting, stick transfers, and nest relief ceremony in which the birds erect their plumes and “clapper” their bill tips. Pairs are mostly monogamous during a season, but they choose new partners each year. Away from the colony, Great Blue Herons defend feeding territories from other herons with dramatic displays in which the birds approach intruders with their head thrown back, wings outstretched, and bill pointing skyward. Gulls and even humans may also be a target of this defensive maneuver. Back to top


    Conservation Low ConcernGreat Blue Heron numbers are stable and increased in the U.S. between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. However, notable population declines have occurred in some areas, particularly in the “great white heron” group in southern Florida, where elevated mercury levels in local waterways may be a factor. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan estimates a continental population of 83,000 breeding birds, and rates the species an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. The Great White form of Great Blue Heron is on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, which lists birds that are at risk of becoming threatened or endangered without conservation action. Great Blue Herons can be found throughout the year all over North America, though most populations in Canada are present only during the breeding season, and most populations in Mexico are only present during the winter. Because Great Blue Herons depend on wetlands for feeding and on relatively undisturbed sites for breeding, they are vulnerable to habitat loss and to impacts such as traffic, logging, motorboats, and other human intrusions that can disrupt nesting colonies. Other threats include chemical pollutants or other causes of reduced water quality. Although contaminant levels have declined in many areas, pollutants such as PCBs and DDT and newer types of industrial chemicals continue to affect heron habitats and can contribute to factors such as reduced nest site attendance.Back to top

    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.

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    Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder's handbook. A Field Guide to the natural history of North American birds, including all species that regularly breed north of Mexico. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.

    Kushlan, J. A., M. J. Steinkamp, K. C. Parsons, J. Capp, M. A. Cruz, M. Coulter, I. Davidson, L. Dickson, N. Edelson, R. Elliott, R. M. Erwin, S. Hatch, S. Kress, R. Milko, S. Miller, K. Mills, R. Paul, R. Phillips, J. E. Saliva, W. Sydeman, J. Trapp, J. Wheeler and K. Wohl. 2002. Waterbird conservation for the Americas: The North American waterbird conservation plan, version 1. Washington, D.C.: Waterbird Conservation for the Americas.

    Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

    Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center 2014b. Available from

    Sibley, David Allen. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A Knopf, New York.

    Vennesland, Ross G. and Robert W. Butler. 2011. Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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