Grey Heron Courtesy of 402mdk09 CC BY-SA 3.0 license/

THE GREY HERON, Ardea cinerea

At the local lake there is hardly a day goes by without the sighting of a Grey Heron.It sometimes just stands motionless for long periods in the shallows, however, its eyes are ever alert and any movement will trigger its dagger sharp beak to strike at unwary victims. This may be fish,amphibian,insect,crustaceans, reptiles or even small mammals depending on the location where it is hunting.

It is not unusual to encounter a heron perched in a tree.

Photograph by Dal

Description of the grey heron

The grey heron Ardea cinerea belongs to the family of wading birds Ardeidae and may be encountered throughout the temperate regions of Europe Asia and parts of Africa. The bird is between 90-100cm tall, with a wingspan of 175-195 cm. In Britain only the Mute swan is larger {native birds} than the heron. The heron weighs around 1.2kg {1400gms}.  The call is a loud croaking "fraaank"

The plumage of the grey heron as its common name suggests is grey with the whole outer half of the broad rounded wings being black. The white head and neck are white the head adorned with a black crest {grey in juveniles}.  There are dark streaks on the front of the neck and breast. there is a greenish coloured skin around the eye. The bill is yellowish  { occasionally orange pink during the spring}, blackish brown in juvenile. 

Underneath the breast feathers a heron has two patches of "powder down"  which provide a white dust to coagulate fish slime and helps to keep the rest of the birds plumage clean. Stands tall and stately when at rest. The long brownish legs allow the heron to stand in water to catch fish. Its middle toes have claw combs which help in cleaning fish slime from the feathers.

In relation to its body size the wing span is very long. tail very short. Neck very long.Bill medium long. Legs long.  When in flight the bird as a prehistoric appearance with slow flapping wings. The neck is drawn in to an S shape and the legs trail straight out behind it.

It is the only large grey, long legged, long necked bird, native to these shores. It could be mistaken for some species of Crane, but these are very rare.

 A heron taking advantage of a fallen tree to hunt for prey.

photograph by Dal

Life style, nest and eggs.

Here in the UK the cold winter months see the birds may well struggle as the water where they would normally hunt freezes over. If this occurs for a long period of time they could well move to the coast where the water will not be frozen.

During early spring the birds will become well established in their colonies known as heronries. These heronies can be an awesome sight; true some consists of just a few nests but many in Britain can be huge having between 50-100+ nests. The usual location for these nests are at the top of trees, but it is well able to moderate its arrangements according to circumstances, thus they may some times be found in a bush, in reed beds, on cliffs and even rare cases of them nesting on the ground. It is also possible to encounter solitary pairs nesting here and there.

The nest itself is similar in construction to that of a rook but even bulkier and on a much larger scale.It is a large open bulky structure constructed of sticks of a size that is proportionate to the size of the builder. A lining of soft material such as roots, turf, wool etc, completes the interior.

The eggs number 3-5 and are of a uniform light greenish-blue with a rough surface. they may be found in March {April in the north}. There are however, records of eggs being encountered as early as January in mild winters in the southern counties.

The eggs are incubate by both parents for 27 days. When the young chicks hatch the chicks constantly  demand food. The parents bring it back to the nest partly digested and regurgitate in to the nest for the chicks to eat themselves. They will remain in the nest for about 7 weeks.

By July most of the chicks will have fledged, however, their hunting skills will need to improve greatly before the onset of the coming winter. By August the young birds will disperce to seek out a place where they themselves will nest next season. Some may stay in the territory and return to nest in the natal heronry where they where born.

British herons do not migrate but during late September and October their numbers are increased by birds arriving from Norway and other Scandinavian countries to take advantage of our comparitively mild winters.

Photograph by Dal


The BTO Heronries census which has monitored grey herons since 1928 shows that during the year 2000 herons were more abundant than at any time over the last 80 years.  The long term trend still seems to be favouring a moderate increase in population numbers. The heron is not a bird of concern in England.

Milder winters over the last 20 years have no doubt helped  these majestic wading birds. However, severe winters such as the one we endured in 2010/2011 with prolonged snow and frost certainly will have a detrimental effect on the population. In 2003 the estimate was 14,200 nests in Britain.

photograph courtesy of Steve Hillebrand {USWFS}

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