North America’s largest and most widespread heron, the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) has a wing-span of up to six feet. It can be found along the shores of fresh or salt water and in wetlands from Alaska and Canada to the Caribbean. This heron appears statuesque when holding itself completely still while waiting for a fish or other prey to swim by.
The Great Blue Heron is a very distinctive and handsome bird, with blue-gray feathers over most of its body. Its neck is a rusty-gray with black and white feathers down the front. The head is pale with a nearly white face and a pair of black plumes from above the eye to the back of its head. At the start of the breeding season, it also has plumes on its lower back. A subspecies, the Great White Heron (Ardea herodias occidentalis), is all white and can be found in south Florida and some parts of the Caribbean, mainly near salt water.
Although primarily fish eaters, Great Blue Herons also eat frogs, turtles, crabs, aquatic insects, rodents, and even small birds. They locate their prey by sight and usually swallow it whole. Great Blue Herons are solitary feeders, and usually forage while standing in water, sometimes up to their belly. They will also stalk rodents in upland fields, especially in winter.
These herons can be found in a wide range of habitats, including fresh and saltwater marshes, mangrove swamps, wet meadows, and along the shores of lakes, rivers and oceans. Great Blue Herons nest most commonly in colonies of a few to several hundred pairs. These colonies or rookeries are often located on islands or in wooded swamps to avoid predators such as snakes and mammals. Their large, bulky nest is made of sticks, and the female lays three to six pale blue eggs. Only one brood is raised each year.
Although Great Blue Herons are widespread despite human encroachment, their nesting colonies can be threatened by human intrusions and other nearby disturbances such as logging or development. Repeated human disturbance during the nesting period often results in nest failure, with abandonment of the eggs or chicks.
Great Blue Herons have adapted so well to living with humans that they have even been seen fishing for gold fish in small backyard ponds. However, since their breeding colonies are vulnerable to disturbance, it is important to preserve their habitat. Wildlife Land Trust sanctuaries where Great Blue Herons can be found include Caplan (MS), Dempsey (FL), and Block (AL).