The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is a common and widespread North American waterbird. Despite their long and lanky stature, these birds stalk the shallow waters of rivers, lakes, and coastal areas with stealth and grace.
Great Blue Herons are the largest member of the Ardeidae family in the New World and one of the tallest birds in the United States. So, just how big are Great Blue Herons?
Great Blue Herons reach a height of about four feet and can weigh well over five pounds. Their impressive wingspan can top six feet. Males are longer and heavier than females, which is a reliable way for scientists to distinguish between the sexes.
Great Blue Herons use their long legs to wade through wetland and coastal habitats in search of a meal. Once a target is located, these stealthy birds extend their long, spring-like necks to impale or snatch their unsuspecting prey.
Great Blue Herons are pretty unmistakable across most of their range, although birdwatchers in Florida could confuse them with the smaller Great Egret.
There’s a whole lot more to learn about Great Blue Herons. Read on for more fascinating facts and figures about their great size!
Great Blue Heron walking with a large fish
Great Blue Herons are magnificent birds in flight. They use their extra-long legs to spring up into the air for takeoff before spreading their immense wings. They fly with slow, powerful wingbeats, their legs trailing behind and their necks coiled back into an ‘S’ shape.
So just how wide is the Great Blue Heron wingspan?
Most Adult Great Blue Herons measure about 5.5 to 6.5 feet from wingtip to wingtip. However, the wingspan of the largest individuals can measure over two meters or 79 inches.
Males are longer and heavier, so they are likely to have a greater wingspan than their female counterparts.
Great Blue Herons have impressive wingspans that can measure over two meters
Great Blue Herons are tall, slender birds. Hollow bones and lightweight feathers also contribute to their surprisingly low body mass. The average weight of unsexed birds from Eastern North America was just over 4.9 pounds (2.23 kg), with a noticeable difference between males and females.
Male Great Blue Heron weight:
Males from a study in Western Canada had an average weight of five and a half pounds (2.48 kg).
Female Great Blue Heron weight:
Females from the same study had an average weight of 4.6 pounds (2.11 kg).
Great Blue Heron feeding on a small crab in shallow water
Great Blue Herons are one of the few American birds that are comparable in size to human beings. So just how do these birds measure up against you and me?
Great Blue Herons can stand up to about four feet, which is about the average height of an eight-year-old child. These birds may weigh less than a newborn, but their impressive wingspan is equal to or greater than the average adult human height.
Baby Great Blue Herons hatch from eggs that measure just 2.5 inches long and 1.8 inches across (64 x 46 mm). The helpless chicks weigh just under two ounces when they first hatch.
The baby herons have a lot of growing to do before they reach fledging age, but they develop quickly under the care of both parents.
Juvenile Great Blue Herons hit roughly their adult mass by the time they are two months old. Most young birds fledge the nest at this age, and the size difference between the sexes is already evident.
Adult Great Blue Heron with two chicks in the nest
Great Blue Herons vary considerably across their wide distribution range. Unlike many other North American birds, the largest examples of their species are found in the Southeast, and the smallest Blue Herons breed in the Northwest.
Data on the largest recorded Great Blue Heron is hard to come by, but the biggest specimens can weigh over five and a half pounds and have a wingspan of over six and a half feet.
The Great Blue Herons' large size has allowed them to dominate a unique niche among waterbirds. They can capture relatively large fish in an environment where other fish-eating birds like Ospreys can’t effectively hunt.
Their long legs suit their diet and hunting technique by allowing them to hunt for fish in water from a few inches to about two feet deep. They can also stalk through grassland habitats in search of small mammals in much the same way.
Large bills make excellent spears for catching their prey, and their large, broad wings keep them aloft and allow them to travel great distances while on migration.
Great Blue Herons also benefit from their large size by having relatively few natural predators. However, they do fall prey to large birds of prey like the Bald Eagle and perhaps also carnivorous mammals like Bobcats and Coyotes.
Close up of a Great Blue Heron fishing
There are twelve species in the Ardea genus of herons, and two are native to North America. The Great Blue Heron is the third largest Heron species, after the Goliath Heron of Africa and the Great-billed Heron of Southeast Asia and Australia.
Read on to see how Great Blue Herons compare with other similar species.
The Great Egret is the only other American Heron species comparable in size to the Great Blue Heron. These tall white waterbirds are widespread along the south and East coast of the United States, although they also venture up the West coast as far as Oregon and migrate far into the United States interior to breed.
Great Egrets are very slender birds with a body length of just over three feet, a wingspan of four and a half feet, and a mass of just over two pounds. They can be confused with the all-white Great Blue Herons of Florida but are smaller and have black legs and feet.
Great Blue Herons are similar in appearance to the Gray Heron of the Old World and the Cocoi Heron of South America. The Great Blue Heron is the largest of the three, although their distributions rarely overlap, so you are unlikely to confuse them.
Great Blue Heron looking for fish at the seaside
The Great Blue is the largest heron species in North America, but it is not the largest in the world. That title goes to the Goliath Heron of Africa, which grows much bigger than any other bird in the Ardeidae family.
The Goliath measures only five inches longer than the Great Blue but is about four pounds heavier!
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.