Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron

Florida has the elegant, graceful, and striking great blue herons year-round in both fresh and salt water habitats, but the bird is considered a partial migrant because they are found across much of Canada during summer breeding season and can be found throughout Central America in the winter. The scientific name of the great blue heron is Ardea herodias, with ardea being Latin for heron and herodias being Greek for the feminine version of hero or also meaning heron. Florida is one of the few places in the US where these herons have two distinct plumage colors, as well as an intermediate morph. The dark color has the more familiar blue-gray markings, while the white coloration, also sometimes referred to as the great white heron, is fully white to off-white appearing. Ornithologists are debating if the white heron is in fact a subspecies or if it is merely a color morph of the great blue heron. An intermediate morph, called Würdemann’s heron, is a combination of these colorations with white head, neck, and upper body front, but back, wings, and tail in blue-gray.

The great blue heron is the largest heron in North America, with a body length (from tip of beak to tip of tail) of 46 inches and a wingspan (from tip of one wing to tip of the other when both are fully extended) of 72 inches—that is a full six feet! In spite of this impressive size, an adult great blue heron only weights a touch over five pounds. A modification in the sixth cervical vertebra (neck bone) allows the herons to hold their necks in the S-shape usually seen in flight, as well as at other times. The great blue heron often gives one the impression of being beautiful, but slow moving, as it hunts for food or flies. Do not be misled by this fluid and rhythmic foraging and flight behavior, this same vertebra modification also allows these birds to thrust the head and bill forward with lightning speed! This thrusting movement is very useful for foraging, but also an impressive defensive tactic.

Interesting great blue heron tidbits:

  • Great blue herons on the Pacific coast often are seen standing on floating sea kelp beds watching for fish swimming nearby.
  • The oldest recorded great blue heron, based on a band recovery, was 24-years-old.
  • Great blue herons eat almost anything within striking distance—including fish of course, but also amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, insects, and other birds.
  • In the South, great blue herons take advantage of the alligators in waterways and often place their nests in trees or bushes over the water. This helps to prevent animals like raccoons or feral cats getting to the eggs or baby birds as most of these mammals are unwilling to risk an alligator confrontation.