Great Blue Heron is the king of the wading birds


By Ted Manzer

Friday, August 11, 2017

I love to watch blue herons standing motionless while waiting for prey. They are such graceful and focused hunters. They also must be quite adaptable, since they have such a large native range.

In eastern North Carolina they can be found in every month of the year. I even can recall seeing a few as far north as southern Maine in the winter. That’s rare, but they are a tough bird. Usually from New York northward they fly south for the winter.

Herons are long legged birds that stand about three feet tall. They have a wingspan of about six feet and I swear I’ve seen bigger ones. They look huge but only weigh five or six pounds. Sometimes the neck feathers are preened to look smooth and other times the neck feathers look frayed. This is normal.

Herons are often mistaken for cranes by some people. Many folks confuse herons with egrets. If you see a greyish bird with an s-shaped neck it’s a heron. Cranes have shorter necks and egrets usually have longer necks than cranes and straighter ones than herons.

Egrets are normally white, but there is a white form of great blue heron. It’s not native north of Florida, so most of our white, long legged birds are egrets. Another way to tell these birds apart is that egrets have black legs and herons have lighter colored legs. Sandhill cranes have dark legs too, but not as dark as egrets. All three of these can be large birds.

We have a ton of herons on our coastal plain rivers, marshes, ditches and swamps. They wade in the shallows and are quite adept at catching frogs, crayfish and small fish. Herons catch larger fish by impaling them with their sharp beaks. These skilled hunters also catch snakes and turtles. Herons can even hunt at night as they have great eyesight even in low light.

Unfortunately they are also efficient at catching fish from aquaculture facilities too. These amphibious birds are protected, so killing them is out of the question. Other techniques must be used, like employing a few border collies to harass them so they go elsewhere.

Herons like to nest in dead trees but they will nest in live ones or on the ground if trees aren’t available. Male herons are the initial nest builders, collecting sticks and other debris. The female then joins in the nest construction and knits everything together. Nests are usually two to four feet in diameter.

Females lay from two to six pale blue eggs about the size of large chicken eggs. Incubation time is approximately four weeks and heron pairs usually raise one to two broods per year. Young birds begin to fledge at about two months and are gone from the nest in three.

Habitat destruction is the biggest threat facing herons. Habitat has actually improved in many places in recent years. This is partly because of the resurgence of beavers in many areas of its range. 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.