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Birding - The Great Blue Heron

Updated on September 11, 2013
Great blue heron in flight
Great blue heron in flight | Source

If you live in the United States, you've probably seen herons - the great blue - gracefully flapping in the air. They are hard to miss. With more than a six foot wingspan and over three feet tall, Great Blue Herons are the largest and most widespread heron. They can fly at more than 35 miles per hour.

Because of their enormous size, the Ardea herodias are quite easy to identify. They are primarily gray and blue/black with a long white stripe down their heads and a black stripe over their eyes. They have black shoulders and their shaggy neck feathers look permanently ruffled. Long dark legs and a long neck further mark this species. Since they fly with legs stuck out behind them, they are very noticeable in flight. There is no noticeably distinct difference in males and females. They both weigh from about five to eight pounds.

There is an all white morph of the Great blue, called the Great White Heron, in Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean. Sometimes they are referred to as white egrets, although that is a different species entirely.

Great blues sound like a croaking duck. They roost in rookeries or heronries, sometimes with hundreds in large platform nests high in the trees near fresh or salt water. The nests are about 18 inches across to three feet or more and are 20 to 28 feet high in the trees. The female lays 3 to 7 blue-green eggs and both parents incubate them. The young hatch in 3 to 4 weeks. Both parents feed the young, who fledge at eight weeks old.

These herons creep slowly to stalk their prey or stand still for long periods waiting for food to come to them. They eat fish, amphibians, other birds and shellfish by stabbing them with their yellow, thick, sharp beaks as they come by. 90% of their day is spent looking for food.

They can live for more than 15 years and are very territorial. Not many predators seek the Great Blue Heron but they are sometimes sought by raccoons, hawks, vultures, eagles and bears.


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