Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron
Credit: Rinus Baak/USFWS

Often incorrectly called a crane, to which they are not related, or an egret, which is in the same family (rather like a second cousin), great blue herons are widely distributed throughout the continental United States.

These patient predators stalk a wide variety of wetland prey near ponds, streams, lakes, rivers, marshes and coastlines, spearing and swallowing whole everything from fish to frogs to snakes to rodents. Although they typically hunt solo, they often nest together in trees in groups called rookeries.

These large wading birds stand nearly four feet tall, and have 72-inch wingspans. Adult males and females are similar in size and color. So how can you tell great blue herons and other herons and egrets from sandhill and whooping cranes? Although sandhill cranes are roughly the same size, most field guides and bird experts note that herons, except in rookeries, are solitary animals, whereas the crane is more social and can be found in large flocks outside of breeding season.

Herons usually stand and fly with their long necks in an S-shape; cranes fly with straight necks, in v-shaped flocks during migration. Great blue herons are not very vocal and are more frequently found near wetlands, while sandhill cranes vocalize often and can be found in many open habitats, from marshes to farm fields to suburban yards and golf courses.

Great Blue Heron Data

  • Size and color – 45 to 54” tall, weighing between 4.5 and 7 lbs., with 72-inch wingspans. Males and females look similar: medium blue-gray overall color, long legs and neck, large dagger-like yellow bill, and a black and white head.  If you’re in coastal southern Florida, be on the lookout for an all-white subspecies that looks a lot like a great egret.
  • Range – Year round or summer residents, or migrants, in most of the continental United States, usually in close proximity to open water and wetlands.
  • Diet – primarily small fish, but will feed on many kinds of aquatic and terrestrial prey, including reptiles and amphibians, rodents and small mammals, shrimp and crabs, birds, and insects.
  • U.S. habitat – a wide variety of wetland habitats, including ponds and lakes, streams and rivers, mangrove swamps, and freshwater and saltwater marshes and bays. Equally at home in rural and urban locations, wherever minimal cover exists along with a good supply of fish and other prey.

See This Bird!

Their range is quite restricted in Alaska and they are a rare visitor to Hawaii, but quite easy to find in the lower 48.

To see breeding and nesting behaviors, it’s worth a special trip to a heron rookery in the spring. There are several national wildlife refuges where you can look for nesting herons:

Visit the refuge Web sites for more information, and consider calling ahead to plan the best time to see nesting great blue herons.