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The Grey Heron { Birds of Europe}

Updated on August 9, 2015

Ardea cinera the Grey Heron


Yellow crowned night heron {American species}



The Grey Heron belongs to the Ciconiiformes order of birds and the family Ardeidae. The genus name of Ardea is the Latin name for the heron, the specific name of cinera, means ash coloured {grey} from cinis meaning ashes.

In the UK the bird is on the Green list of Conservation concern { no current concerns} with 12,000 pairs in summer . In winter 61,000 individuals 2004/5--/2008/9. In Europe it is not a bird of concern. They occur over much of Europe,Asia { except the north east} through Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa. They frequent marshes, rivers,lakes and flooded fields.

The European population size varies from country to country as for instance, in Austria there are an estimated 1,300-1,500 breeding pairs. Belgium 3,200-3,600 breeding pairs Croatia 1,500-3,000 breeding pairs, France 28,000-320,000 breeding pairs Germany 24,000- 32,000 breeding pairs Portugal 600-700 breeding pairs Spain 5,000-6,000 breeding pairs and Ukraine 23,800 -32,900 breeding pairs. Source Birdlife.

The Gaelic name for the bird is Corra-ghritheach, the Welsh ,Creyr Glas and the Irish Corr Reisc. Source for the above information the BTO.

In America the Order is represented by species such as the Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias and the Night herons of the genus Nyctanassa.

Here we look at the species and its lifestyle with noted from past ornithologists and other eminent writers. As always we commence with a description of the subject under review.

Heron and habitat

Crossley's ID to Britain and Ireland -Richard Crossley
Crossley's ID to Britain and Ireland -Richard Crossley | Source

Description of the Grey heron

The male in adult plumage has a white forehead with a black cap that extends to the rear into a long narrow black plume. The dagger-like beak is orange yellow,which is dull except in spring. The rest of the head is grey.The fore-neck is marked with prominent black lines.On the lower neck are displayed elongated,drooping plumes of narrow pointed white feathers.The area over the chest, and a line along each side of the abdomen is purplish black.

The general colour of the back and sides of the body is a light ash grey. The primaries are black, the edge of the wings white and the secondaries are ash grey. The tail is pearl grey. The bill and legs are yellow, and the space around the eyes green which is also the colour of the feet. The female resembles the male, but is slightly smaller, the black plumes on the head are shorter and the black streaks on the neck less prominent, however it is very difficult, especially to the layman, to differentiate the sexes in the field.

The length of the heron is 94 cm { just over three feet} and they weigh about 1.5 kg. In relation to their body size the wings are very long the tail short , the bill stout and medium length, the legs medium to long. The flight of the bird is a slow heavy flapping one with the neck drawn in in an 'S' shape and the legs held straight out behind. Stalks on the ground, perches in trees and on the ground, in several typical attitudes. As for an example hunched up with neck drawn in, or alert with neck craned forward to full extent or half crouched with the neck forward looking for prey.

The call of the bird is a harsh gutteral 'frannk,frannk, frannnk'.

Heron in unusual pose enjoying the sun


Heron with a duckling in its grasp

I only noticed quite recently that this bird had a duckling hanging from its beak
I only noticed quite recently that this bird had a duckling hanging from its beak | Source

General information and historical notes

Herons belong to a very numerous tribe which are spread far and wide across the globe. They bear a strong affinity to the crane and the stork,but differ in one or two particulars. It is smaller, the beak is longer, and the middle claw of each foot is serrated better adapted for seizing slippery prey upon which it principally feeds. The handsome crest, and the plumes which adorn its head and neck are also more noticeable.

Another distinguishing character of the heron is the expansive properties of the gullet,which enables the heron to carry home to its young a much larger supply of food that it could manage in the beak alone.

In all parts of Britain the grey heron is a common bird,despite it being mercilessly persecuted in days gone by on account of its depredation on trout and other fish preserves, despite it being useful of ridding the waters of pike and vermin. It is encountered wherever there is water by the seashore,near meres,lakes,in swampy districts, marshes and flooded fields.

During the reign of Edward I, its price was higher than of any other wild fowl. It was long esteemed as an article of food,and the nestlings regarded as 'delicate eating',along with the swan and peacock. Until the 1840's,Heronries were held almost sacred and their seems to have been an almost superstitious fear of disturbing them. In the sixteenth century hunting herons with peregrines was regarded as high sport and the Kings identified 'their' birds by means of metal leg ring. In Scotland being caught poaching herons could mean losing a hand.

The bird may be observed standing completely still, for hours,in a pond or by a stream often at a considerable distance from the shore, watching for food, ready at a moments notice to strike with its dagger-like beak to secure a fish, frog,or other hapless amphibian. It also feeds at night, especially in bright moonlight. The heron will take almost anything,few things being declined. Seebohm 1836, relates the following " One was recently brought to us dead,with the head and shoulders of a large fat rat tightly fixed in its gullet. The rodent being fat and its stomach enormously swollen with grain, had proved to large to pass down or,apparently to be ejected and each was fatal to the other"

Many young birds also fall victim to the voracity of the heron,ducklings and the chicks of water-hens and coots regularly feature on its menu.

Ardea cinera in flight, the neck held in an 'S' shape and the feet straight out behind.



Familiar Wild Birds  { 1838}
Familiar Wild Birds { 1838}

History of Heronries

One of the characteristics of the heron is that they breed in colonies known as Heronries. One of the largest and most interesting heronries in England was at Parham Sussex. Yarrel {1700's} gives a list of about thirty heronries in England but alas Swaysland {Familiar Wild Birds 1883} states " It is much to be feared that they in common with many other curiosities of natural history are rapidly declining in numbers and importance"

Coward 'Birds of Cheshire { the most southerly county of north west England} ,1900, states on the subject of heronries-" Until quite recently there were heronries on many of the large estates in Cheshire; the meres, trout streams and marl pits, and the shallow waters of the estuaries, furnishing an abundant supply of food for the voracious birds. owing to a variety of causes, such as the felling of nesting trees, increased persecution and the fact that the bird is considered a great prize to every prowling gunner {now Illegal}; herons have been greatly reduced in numbers, and at the present time {1900} there are only two heronries, at Eaton and Tabley, exist within the county borders."

Mr.R Newstead, in his exhaustive paper on " The Heron and Heronries of Cheshire and North Wales "1880's, says of the colony at Eaton park, the seat of the Duke of Westminster;- " This is the largest of our heronries and is situated in the 'Duckwood' near the Hall. It consists of between 40-50 nests, nearly all of which are built in the tops of very tall willow trees. Some nests are quite isolated, others are in groups of various numbers. In 8 trees I counted 21 nests."

The other existing heronry , spoken of by Coward,was at Tabley Park, near Knutsford. According to records it was established in 1871 when a single pair nested there. In 1874, there were three nests and by 1881 there had been about a dozen.

In his book ' A History of British Birds' 1862, The Rev. Morris gives a full historical account of all the heronries of importance existing in the UK and Ireland. After which he adds-" heronries are inhabited from spring to the latter end of summer, and are occasionally returned to in the winter months by individual birds from time to time. They are clung to with great tenacity by their occupants."

Grey heron in flight You Tube courtesy of Romy Ocon

Nest eggs and young

Here in the UK,in the more southern localities herons tend to gather in colonies in early to late February .They are attentive to heronries which they have probably occupied during the breeding season for many years in succession. heronries in Britain are on the whole much fewer than in former times and smaller. Heronries are most frequently found at the summit of tall trees, but not always so,some birds also choose low shrubs, ruins, and occasionally they have been known to select even a bare hillside.

The old nest is repaired year after year and birds have been known to return to the same heronry for a succession of twenty years.

Herons at nest

This image was originally posted to Flickr and was uploaded by Snowmanradio
This image was originally posted to Flickr and was uploaded by Snowmanradio | Source

Jackdaws are notorious for stealing the eggs of herons {and other birds}


The nest

The nest itself is a large bulky structure composed of sticks and lined with birch twigs or turf and moss. Mr Barret Hamilton conveys the following observations--" One bird presumably the female stands on the nest while the other goes away to find sticks. These he brings in his mouth, and gives them to his mate. The sticks are gathered from the ground,sometimes close to a tree in which the nest is, sometimes several hundred yards away. All sorts of twigs and sticks are collected. On approaching the nest, the male, who is evidently very proud of his home and his mate,usually utters some loud croaks,at the same time straightening himself out in the air, and on alighting he sticks his crest bolt upright, all of which is no doubt for the delectation of the hen bird."

" She gets up on her legs, which have been tucked in under her on the nest, takes the stick from him and arranges it. Then after a few minutes spent preening his feathers, he goes off again, and the same routine is gone through.Apparently the male continues to bring sticks after incubation has commenced. Herons seem to mate with each other on their nesting trees.The nest is far from conspicuous for such a large structure,even when the female is sitting ,unless she shows the white part of her head."

" During incubation I have seen the birds change places very neatly, one bird approaches the nest, and just before it arrives, the other bird who was sitting on the eggs glided off and left;the whole thing was done so quietly that it was almost as inconspicuous as if one bird had merely flown over the nest"

The common heron lays three to four eggs of a chalky texture,varying in size between two to two and a half inches long and one and a half to one and three quarter inches in breadth. They are generally laid in March/April in England, but in some very mild seasons, records reveal eggs have been found as early as January.

The incubation period takes around twenty seven to twenty nine days. The young nestlings rarely more than two in number,though born with their eyes open are helpless creatures,covered with a soft white down, longer on the back and head, with the under parts white , and are fed by the parents until they are able to leave the nest, when they begin clambering among the branches of their home. They use their bill , in the manner of a parrot to aid their movement.

The heron tends its young with assidious care often flying long distances to procure food for their clamorous offspring, who never seem to have enough, and whose needs are often supplied from fisheries, making them an enemy to the management of such places.They do not mind if the food consists of goldfish or carp which inhabit gardens ponds much to the consternation of the owner.

However, humans are not the only enemy this bird has to contend with, which checks the increase in population numbers, indeed, there are instances recorded of heronries which had been frequented for many years, being deserted,owing to the persistent robbing of their eggs by jackdaws and hooded crows.

" The heronry is a most interesting place to visit" observes Mr. W.Hudson," When the young birds are nearly old enough to fly,and are most hungry and vociferous, and stand erect on the nest or neighbouring branches looking very strange,tall and conspicuous on the treetops, the parent birds are extremely active, and if the colony is a large one they are seen arriving singly, or in twos and threes, at intervals throughout the day."

" Each time a bird with a well filled gullet sweeps down, the young birds in all the nests are thrown into a great state of excitement and greet the food bearer with a storm of extraordinary sounds. The cries are powerful and harsh, but vary greatly and resemble grunts and squeals,mingled with strange and prolonged screams. When the parent bird has settled on his own nest and feeds its young the sounds die away;but when several birds arrive in succession, the vocal tempest rages continuously among the trees, for every young bird appears to regard any old bird, on arrival, as its own parent bringing food to satisfy its raging hunger"

Young birds

The young birds begin to moult in November,and when they have acquired their first plumage, early in the spring, the crown and upper surface is dusky ash, very dark on the nape, with broad blackish stripes on the sides of the breast, but the elongated feathers on the head, neck and back have not yet appeared. It is only when the birds are nearly two years old, and have gone through their second moults, that the grey back, the richly marked throats and fine plumes are assumed.

Heron plate

Illustration by Thornburn [British Birds} Courtesy of the BHL
Illustration by Thornburn [British Birds} Courtesy of the BHL


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      aviannovice ,

      Hi Deb,I also like herons,egrets and bitterns, so glad you enjoyed this one.Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      An excellent piece. I do so adore ALL of my herons and egrets, so I found this particularly interesting. Awesome and up!

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Devika ,thank you as always for your kind and appreciated comments.Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I have seen the Grey Heron in South Africa and was a great experience. A very useful and informative hub. I like your ideas of hubs. Always something new and meaningful.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hi Eddy, Thank you so much for all your kind words and vote up, it is much appreciated . Be over very soon to share your wonderful work. Best wishes to you.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      4 years ago from Wales

      I have learnt so much more about this beautiul bird DAL from reading this great share as I always do with your hubs. You are so knowledgeable and have the knack of putting it across so well for others to learn. Voting up, sharing and wishing you a wonderful weekend my dear friend.



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