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Great Blue Heron


Photo Credit: Terry Hartley

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Ardea herodias

OTHER NAMES. Crane, Blue Crane, Egret, White Heron, Long Tom.

DESCRIPTION. A large (46” long with a 72” wingspan) lean, slate-gray colored heron with a white head and black stripe extending above the eye; a white foreneck streaked with black; a dagger-like bill and long legs.  Breeding adults have a yellowish bill and ornate plumes on the head, neck and back.  Nonbreeding adults lack plumes, and the bill is yellower.  Juvenile birds have a black crown and no plumes.  All herons fly with their neck folded.  This distinguishes them from cranes, geese, ibises, storks and cormorants,  all of which fly with the neck extended.  There is an all white form of the Great Blue in Florida, the “Great White Heron,” that was once considered a separate species, but is now considered part of the species complex.

DISTRIBUTION.  Breeds from coastal Alaska and southern Canada, south through Mexico.  Winter range is essentially the lower 1/3 of the continental U.S. into Mexico. Common year-round throughout Alabama.  Numbers seem to be increasing over the last few decades.

HABITAT.  Shallow water areas of lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, marshes, swamps and tidal flats.  Great Blue Herons can be found almost anywhere there is shallow water and a source of fish.  They are particular numerous in the tailraces below river dams and around commercial catfish ponds.

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY.  Classified as a wading bird, this large showy heron is one of the most common birds found on water bodies in Alabama.  Though familiar to many people, they are often mistaken for and called cranes or egrets.  They feed on a variety of fish, crayfish, salamanders, snakes and other small aquatic wildlife.  They usually nest in large rookeries which number from a few nests to several hundred.  Nests are 2-3 feet across, made of sturdy twigs, and are usually found in the top of trees near water.  Several other species of herons and egrets may also share these rookeries.

Great Blue Herons are usually seen individually while hunting in shallow water, and flush easily when approached.  However, some individuals become bold in areas of abundant fish; they can be quite bold around human fishermen – stealing bait fish from buckets or from a fish stringer left unattended.  They vocalize a hoarse guttural – frack- frack- frack.

The showy plumes of this bird were once highly valued for use in women’s hats.  The Great Blue Heron is a protected nongame bird and no hunting of the species is allowed.   

CONSERVATION STATUS.  Because of the widespread distribution and abundant numbers of this species it is classified as low conservation concern.

Author: Keith Hudson, Wildlife Biologist, May 2005

Articles: The Great Blue Heron - Original Fish Finder


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