Growing up in Vancouver I saw a lot of great blue herons. I’d see them at the beach, on trails, and especially in ditches while I was riding my horse. Those ones were the worst, because as soon we’d walk past them the bird would take off, scaring my poor horse senseless. Still, I was always impressed by the size and stature of herons, so it’s high time I wrote about them.

A typical great blue heron pose.
Image by Alpinekid, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Great blue herons live all over North America and Central America, and migrate to South America during the winter. They need to live near water, which would be why I saw so many of them in Vancouver. Any water will do, from seashores to lakes and rivers to swamps. Herons also like to live near tall trees, which they use for nesting.

Great blue herons are big; in fact they are the largest herons in North America. Standing they measure about 60 cm tall, and has a wingspan of up to 200 cm. As you might have guessed from their name, great blue herons have blue plumage, though they’re actually more of a grey colour with a bit of a blue tint. They have long, white and grey feathers on their backs and wings, and have reddish legs that are very long and thin. A population of herons in Florida is quite a bit different from your standard great blue herons — they are all-white and once were thought to be a different species entirely.

Herons feed on fish, which is why living next to water is essential for the species. They usually hunt at dawn and dusk, wading in shallow water until they spot a tasty meal. The herons then snatch up the fish with their long beaks, and swallow it whole. They have to be careful, though because if the fish is too big they can choke on it.

Great blue herons in their nest.
Image by Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Heron mating usually occurs between March and May. Great blue herons form pairs for the mating season, with males displaying to attract female herons’ attention. To do this, the males will stretch out their necks, fluff up their feathers, and sometimes fly around the females or shake twigs at them. If his display is successful, the pair will sit together and fluff their feathers and clack their beaks. Herons usually nest in large groups, to protect their eggs from predation. Between 2 and 7 eggs are laid, which will hatch after a month of incubation. The young fledge after 2 months and become sexually mature at 22 months of age. Being a young heron is risky business; over half of the chicks will die before they reach one year of age.

Despite the large mortality rate of heron young, the species itself is doing pretty well. Due to their ability to live next to pretty much any body of water, even if it is an urban area, great blue heron numbers are actually increasing. So don’t worry, these majestic birds won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

My painting of a great blue heron, as part of my Canadian Wildlife Dualchrome Series. Each painting uses only two colours, and all are available as instant downloads in my Etsy shop!
Reference photo by Andrea Westmoreland from DeLand, United States, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cover image by Grendelkhan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons