Photo: Greg Jowers/Audubon Photography Awards

Great Blue Heron

Ardea herodias

Widespread and familiar (though often called "crane"), the largest heron in North America. Often seen standing silently along inland rivers or lakeshores, or flying high overhead, with slow wingbeats, its head hunched back onto its shoulders. Highly adaptable, it thrives around all kinds of waters from subtropical mangrove swamps to desert rivers to the coastline of southern Alaska. With its variable diet it is able to spend the winter farther north than most herons, even in areas where most waters freeze. A form in southern Florida (called "Great White Heron") is slightly larger and entirely white.
Conservation status Formerly often shot, simply because it made a conspicuous and easy target, but this rarely occurs today. Colonies may be disrupted by human disturbance, especially early in season. Still common and widespread, numbers probably stable.
Family Herons, Egrets, Bitterns
Habitat Marshes, swamps, shores, tideflats. Very adaptable. Forages in any kind of calm fresh waters or slow-moving rivers, also in shallow coastal bays. Nests in trees or shrubs near water, sometimes on ground in areas free of predators. "Great White" form is mostly in salt water habitats.
Widespread and familiar (though often called "crane"), the largest heron in North America. Often seen standing silently along inland rivers or lakeshores, or flying high overhead, with slow wingbeats, its head hunched back onto its shoulders. Highly adaptable, it thrives around all kinds of waters from subtropical mangrove swamps to desert rivers to the coastline of southern Alaska. With its variable diet it is able to spend the winter farther north than most herons, even in areas where most waters freeze. A form in southern Florida (called "Great White Heron") is slightly larger and entirely white.
Photo Gallery
  • adult white morph (Great White Heron)
  • adult white morph (Great White Heron)
  • adult
  • adult
  • juvenile
  • adult
Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly by standing still or walking very slowly in shallow water, waiting for fish to swim near, then striking with rapid thrust of bill. Also forages on shore, from floating objects, and in grassland. May hunt by day or night.


Eggs

3-5, sometimes 2-7. Pale blue. Incubation is by both sexes, 25-30 days. Young: Both parents feed young, by regurgitation. Young capable of flight at about 60 days, depart nest at about 65-90 days. 1 brood per year in north, sometimes 2 in south.


Young

Both parents feed young, by regurgitation. Young capable of flight at about 60 days, depart nest at about 65-90 days. 1 brood per year in north, sometimes 2 in south.

Diet

Highly variable and adaptable. Eats mostly fish, but also frogs, salamanders, turtles, snakes, insects, rodents, birds. Has been seen stalking voles and gophers in fields, capturing rails at edge of marsh, eating many species of small waterbirds.


Nesting

Breeds in colonies, often of this species alone, sometimes mixed with other wading birds; rarely in isolated pairs. Male chooses nest site and displays there to attract mate. Displays include stretching neck up with bill pointing skyward, flying in circles above colony with neck extended, stretching neck forward with head and neck feathers erected and then snapping bill shut. Nest: Site highly variable, usually in trees 20-60' above ground or water; sometimes in low shrubs, sometimes on ground (on predator-free islands), sometimes well above 100' in tree. Nest (built mostly by female, with material gathered mostly by male) is a platform of sticks, sometimes quite large.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Northern populations east of Rockies are migratory, some going to Caribbean, Central America, or northern South America. Migrates by day or night, alone or in flocks. Some wander well to the north in late summer. Populations along Pacific Coast may be permanent residents, even as far north as southeastern Alaska.

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Migration

Northern populations east of Rockies are migratory, some going to Caribbean, Central America, or northern South America. Migrates by day or night, alone or in flocks. Some wander well to the north in late summer. Populations along Pacific Coast may be permanent residents, even as far north as southeastern Alaska.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
A harsh squawk.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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