Grey Heron

Ardea cinerea

Last updated: June 5, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
Image Credit Budimir Jevtic/Shutterstock.com

Male grey herons are picky about their mates. They'll reject a female that they don't fancy.

Grey Heron Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Aves
Order
Ciconiiformes
Family
Ardeidae
Genus
Ardea
Scientific Name
Ardea cinerea

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Grey Heron Conservation Status


Grey Heron Facts

Prey
Fish, small mammals, small birds, frogs, crustaceans
Fun Fact
Male grey herons are picky about their mates. They'll reject a female that they don't fancy.
Estimated Population Size
790,000 to 3,700,000
Biggest Threat
Habitat destruction, poisoning
Most Distinctive Feature
The long bill, which is orange during the breeding season and yellow at other times
Other Name(s)
Common heron
Wingspan
61 to 69 inches
Incubation Period
25 to 26 days
Diet
Omnivore
Type
Bird
Common Name
Grey Heron
Nesting Location
In trees or dense brush
Age of Molting
50 days
Migratory
1

Grey Heron Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Grey
  • Black
  • White
Skin Type
Feathers
Lifespan
5 - 23 years
Weight
.50 - 4 pounds
Height
39 inches
Length
33 - 40 inches

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Symbol of Peace and the Sun

Though grey heron chicks may take sibling rivalry to a new level, this beautiful bird has been a symbol of all good things since antiquity. Read on for more information about Ardea cinerea.

Five Amazing Facts About the Grey Heron

Here are five amazing facts about the grey heron:

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  • Grey heron chicks sometimes kill and eat each other.
  • Grey herons usually live only five years, but at least one heron lived for 23 years.
  • They use the same nest season after season, often building a new one on top of the old. Male herons aren’t above stealing roomier nests.
  • Their eggs are a lovely shade of blue-green.
  • Like other herons, they fly with their necks drawn in. This differentiates them from cranes and storks, who fly with their necks extended.

Where To Find the Grey Heron

The grey heron’s range is wide and ranges from sub-Saharan African countries such as Ghana to South Africa to Somalia and parts of Madagascar. The bird can also be found as a resident in the British Isles, France and Italy. Their breeding range is found in Norway and southern Sweden, down to eastern European countries such as Bulgaria and across to Russia and China. There are also non-breeding populations in Saharan Africa, India and Turkey. It’s also a vagrant in Greenland and Newfoundland and down into the Caribbean.

The grey heron needs habitats that are near bodies of water, whether they be rivers or lakes, swamps, marshes, lagoons, estuaries, coastal areas, or even fish farms. It will hunt in dry areas but needs to roost and nest near water.

Grey Heron Nests

The grey heron nest is used from one season to the next and because of that it can become quite large. At first, it is made of sticks lined with dead grasses or reeds, twigs and rootlets. The male collects these items while the female actually builds them. Grey herons prefer nests that are built high up in sturdy trees, but if none are available they’ll build the nest in the brush, among the reeds or on ledges. Older males return to their old nests and sometimes just appropriate a nest that looks roomier.



Scientific Name

The grey heron’s scientific name is Ardea cinerea. Ardea is Latin for “heron” and comes from a Roman myth of the town of Ardea. This town was burnt to the ground, and a heron rose from the ashes. Appropriately, cinerea is Latin for “ash gray.” There are four subspecies of grey heron. They are:

  1. Ardea cinerea cinerea
  2. Ardea cinerea ouyi
  3. Ardea cinerea irasa
  4. Ardea cinerea monicae

Appearance

The grey heron is a fairly large bird, with a length of between 33 and 40 inches and a weight between half a pound and 4 pounds. It gets its name from the gray plumage found on its neck, back and wings. The head of the bird is white but is embellished with black feathers that begin at the eyes, extend to the neck and form a crest. Juvenile birds sport brownish heads that eventually turn white with the black crest. Other characteristics are its long bill, which it uses to convey emotions, whether in courting or in threat display. Its legs are brown and stilt-like, which allows the bird to wade comfortably.

Grey heron with a freshly-caught fish in its beak
The grey heron’s yellow bill turns more orange during the breeding season.

Angyalosi Beata/Shutterstock.com

Grey Heron vs. Blue Heron

The grey heron and the blue heron, or the great blue heron are fairly closely related and belong to the Ardea genus. They share the characteristics of being large birds with long bills and long legs that allow them to stand comfortably in shallow water. The great blue heron is a bit larger than the grey heron, and both nest in heronries near bodies of water and have a similar diet of fish, small mammals, insects and frogs. But unlike the grey heron, the blue heron’s range is mostly in North America, Central America and the Caribbean.

The blue heron gets its name because its flight feathers are more slate colored than the gray of the grey heron. It also has reddish-brown and black stripes along its flank and reddish-brown thighs, with plumes on the neck and the lower part of its back. Like the grey heron, its yellow bill turns more orange during the breeding season.

Behavior

Outside of the breeding season, grey herons are solitary. They are apex predators in their range and either hunt for prey or stand in the water and wait for something to come within striking distance. The weather also affects the bird’s behavior. They tend to sleep more when it’s colder and rest more than sleep when the weather is windy. They roost on the ground during the day and fly up into the trees as the sun goes down. Herons are fairly opportunistic when it comes to food, and they will visit zoos during feeding times to see what they can pilfer and take handouts from humans if they live in towns or cities. They also have a variety of calls, including the famous “fraaaaank” call which is heard when the bird flies. Often, they can be seen simply standing in one spot, often on one leg.

Grey herons are not known for their speed, and their wingbeats are slow. If they can catch a thermal, they can glide or soar for some distance.

Grey herons are beneficial because they keep aquatic life such as fish and amphibians in balance, but they can also be pests when they take these animals out of man-made ponds and fish farms.

Diet

Grey herons mostly eat fish, but they will also take frogs, crustaceans, small mammals and insects. They also eat ducklings and other birds up to the size of white-throated rails, even though the heron might be injured trying to capture one. The grey heron often hunts by moonlight. When something is within striking distance it catches it with its long bill and swallows in whole.

Grey Heron Predators and Threats

The predators of grey herons are few, but they include foxes and humans. Crows and kites also eat eggs and chicks, especially when they are abandoned. Humans destroy and pollute the birds’ habitat, hunt them and poison them to stop them from eating farmed fish.

Parasitic worms also prey on grey herons, especially juveniles, though juvenile herons don’t harbor as many types of parasites as their parents.

Reproduction, Babies, and Lifespan

The grey heron’s breeding season can begin in February and last through June. At this time the usually solitary bird forms colonies called heronries, usually found in tall trees near water. The males arrive first and either choose a place to build the nest or return to an old one. Once this is done they call to attract mates. Once the male finds a suitable mate, the two engage in a complicated courtship dance that includes such actions as bill clapping. The couple also preen each other, and they will stay together for the rest of the breeding season. They’ll usually have one brood a season but can raise another if the first one is lost.

Female grey herons lay from two to five eggs over two days, depending on conditions such as the weather and the availability and abundance of food. The eggs hatch after about 25 days. Though the chicks are fed and protected by both parents, the parents let the chicks fight over who gets the most food and attention, especially when they stop feeding the chicks directly and start to simply regurgitate the food. It’s fairly common for one chick to just shove its sibling out of the nest altogether.

The chicks fledge after around 50 days but are still dependent on their parents for about two and a half more months. By the next breeding season, the chicks will be ready to mate themselves. The lifespan of the grey heron is surprisingly short for a large bird. The average lifespan is about five years, though there have been reports of wild birds living four times longer than this.

Grey Heron Population

Conservationists believe that the population of grey herons is between 790,000 to 3,700,000, and its status is least concern.

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Grey Heron FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Does the grey heron migrate?

Scientists believe that grey herons partially migrate. Most grey heron populations stay where they are year-round, but birds from places such as Scandinavia migrate to southern Europe and Africa.

How many eggs does the grey heron lay?

The grey heron lays between two to five eggs, though they’ve been known to lay as many as 10. If the pair loses their first brood, they can go on to raise a second during the same season.

How fast does the grey heron fly?

The grey heron isn’t a fast flyer and flies at speeds of between 20 and 30 miles per hour.

What is the grey heron’s wingspan?

The grey heron’s wingspan is 61 to 69 inches.

When do grey herons leave the nest?

Grey herons leave the nest about 50 days after they hatch, but they’ll depend on their parents for about two and a half more months.

What does it mean to see a grey heron?

Seeing a grey heron, or any other type of heron is considered a good thing. Herons are symbols of peace and spiritual awakening. In Egypt, the heron was a symbol of rebirth, creation and the sun.

Are grey herons in the U.S.?

Grey herons aren’t seen often in the United States, for they are native to Eurasia and Africa, but once in a while a grey heron is spotted.

What is the difference between a blue heron and a grey heron?

The characteristics of the great blue heron and a grey heron are similar, but the blue heron is a somewhat larger bird, between 36 and 54 inches long and a weight of between 4 and 7.9 pounds. Its feathers are slaty blue-gray, and it has areas of reddish-brown. Another big difference is that the blue heron is found in North and Central America, while the grey heron is found in Europe, Asia and Africa.

Are grey herons rare in the UK?

Grey herons are not rare in the United Kingdom and are considered common.

How much does a grey heron weigh?

How much does a grey heron weigh?

How long does a grey heron live?

The lifespan of a grey heron is usually about five years, though they can live much longer. Most chicks die before they reach maturity, which may contribute to the bird’s short lifespan.

What is the difference between a grey heron and a blue heron?

The most significant differences between grey and blue herons are their size and locality. Blue herons are taller with a larger wingspan and are native to North America, while grey herons are smaller in size than the grey ones and are more centralized in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

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Sources
  1. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grey_heron
  2. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Available here: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/grey-heron/
  3. , Available here: https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/birds/herons-egrets-spoonbill-and-crane/grey-heron

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