Herons from the family Ardeidae are tall and striking birds with long necks and legs. There are actually some 64 species of herons if you also include egrets and bitterns from the same family. Living almost solely near coastal areas or freshwater, herons are expert hunters with a specialised diet, so what do herons eat?
Herons are carnivorous, bordering on piscivorous, meaning they almost solely eat fish. Other common food choices include crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, molluscs, small mammals, small lizards and even small birds. Anyone with a fish pond might already know how efficient herons are at their job!
Whilst some herons are generalists, feeding on practically any meat they can hunt or forage, some are specialised and feed almost solely on fish or crustaceans. The Yellow-crowned night heron is one such heron that is exceptionally good at hunting (and digesting) crabs, crayfish and other crustaceans. Other herons, like the Boat-billed heron, have their own unique specialisms when it comes to poaching their quarry.
Herons have some pretty impressive tricks up their sleeves when it comes to hunting - read on to discover more about how these highly adapted birds hunt and feed!
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) eating a fish
Feeding primarily on fish and other animals, herons are carnivorous. Whilst fish is the dietary staple of most herons, they also feed on a wide range of crustaceans and amphibians. Other animals such as mammals, lizards and birds form a lesser portion of their diets, but herons are accomplished hunters and will target any valid prey that enters their hunting grounds.
The Grey heron, which is the most common species of heron, feeds primarily on fish when available. Some studies have revealed a diet of some 95% fish. Ducklings, frogs and toads are also common prey.
The Great Blue heron, common in the Americas, also feeds primarily on fish. Populations in Nova Scotia were found to consume some 98% flounders. In Idaho, however, diets included some 24% to 40% voles.
The Yellow-crowned heron is a crustacean specialist, feeding mainly on crabs and crayfish. It has developed techniques for smashing crustaceans apart on rocks and is excellent at digesting their hard exoskeletons, excreting them as pellets.
There are some herons that forage foods from the forest floor as well as in water, such as the Japanese night heron. The Japanese night heron eats a large proportion of worms and insects. The Australia Pied heron is another example of a heron that does not rely on fish, also consuming large volumes of insects.
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) fishing
Herons are intelligent, patient and industrious hunters. Some spend as much as 90% of their waking day hunting, and for much of that time, they are simply watching and waiting.
The typical heron hunting technique is to find a shielded, camouflaged perch near slow, shallow water. Once suitable prey passes by, they launch an attack, either spearing the prey with their sharp beaks or catching it and bludgeoning it to death on a nearby rock. They also swallow prey alive.
Herons can catch impressively large fish - the largest heron of all, the Goliath heron, can catch fish between 30cm and 50cm in length!
Not all herons are stealthy. The Boat-billed heron often chooses to hunt by simply wading through the water and scooping up prey in its large boat-shaped bill.
Goliath Herons (Ardea goliath) can catch fish up to 50cm in length
Perhaps the most intriguing heron hunting technique is that of the Black Heron. The Black Heron partakes in a rare hunting technique called canopy feeding.
The bird’s large black wings form a canopy around its body and face, camouflaging the shield whilst simultaneously reducing glare from the sun. The canopy tricks fish and other prey into not recognising the bird whilst also giving it a clearer shot at catching them.
Some egrets from the same family use their wings in a similar way to dazzle and confuse fish.
Black Herons (Egretta ardesiaca) partake in canopy feeding
Herons eat a huge variety of fish, ranging from large carp and bass to tiny minnows and goldfish. Some common varieties of fish eaten by herons include:
Grey Heron fishing in the water
Whilst some herons eat almost 100% fish, others eat barely any fish at all. Their habitats may not be inhabited by many - if any - fish. Herons are flexible carnivores that have been observed swallowing non-fish prey like turtles and rabbits whole.
Other foods that herons consume include:
Great Blue Heron eating a gopher
Despite being quite large, herons are somewhat secretive animals and hunt at night or dawn when they’re less likely to be seen.
There have been some reports, videos and anecdotes of herons fishing using bait. The heron will place some item in the water, like a stick or feather, in a bid to attract fish or other prey.
Green herons, Striated and Indian pond herons seem to pop up in a few of these observations, but it is largely undocumented in scientific literature.
Green Heron (Butorides virescens) hunting for fish at the edge of a pond
Herons are well-known to take ornamental fish from fish ponds! In fact, it’s not uncommon for fish ponds to be slowly tactically depleted by a nearby heron - and you may never even see the culprit!
Ponds are ideal targets for herons as they’re often quite shallow and there’s nowhere for the fish to escape. Many people resort to putting up heron grids or heron guards to prevent their fish from being taken.
Herons often wade through wetlands or even flooded fields to pursue fish, amphibians, small birds and mammals. Grey herons often eat ducklings and voles as well as fish.
Whilst some species of herons do feed on dry land, most prefer to feed in or near freshwater or coastal environments. Small streams, lakes, wetlands, marshlands and coastal waterways are all typical heron habitats.
Great Blue Heron in a field, searching for food
Herons are carnivores that solely consume meat. Whilst some herons will eat carrion, they prefer a diet of fresh food that they hunt themselves.
Baby herons are fed regurgitated meat from fish, mammals, amphibians, crustaceans or whatever else their parents are eating.
Both parents usually feed the chicks, which take a relatively long 6 to 8 weeks to fledge. Heron chicks forcibly remove partially regurgitated food from their parents’ mouths until around the 1-month mark, when the parents start tossing them whole foods.
Grey Heron with chicks in the nest
Herons generally consume water from their diets, and those that hunt on saltwater return to fresh water to drink.
Most herons are pretty large and formidable adversaries that few animals would target. Smaller herons still face predation by raptors, like Red-Tailed Hawks, Bald and Golden eagles and Great Horned owls, as well as foxes and raccoons. Young herons might be targeted by corvids such as crows.
Juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) standing on a rock
Herons don’t need much encouragement to take your fish if you want them to! Many fish ponds are depleted of their ornamental fish by herons.
Herons love taking fish from ponds. The water is shallow, and there’s practically nowhere to hide. It’s too easy for herons!
Some snakes linger around in freshwater wetlands and marshes, and yes, herons would likely eat those if they’re safely able to do so. This would probably be rare.
Great Blue Heron eating a large fish
The diets of Blue herons are relatively flexible, feeding upon fish, crustaceans, amphibians and molluscs, though they generally prefer fish. Some Blue herons incorporate a large number of voles or small birds (mainly ducklings) into their diets.
Grey herons primarily consume fish, but will also eat amphibians, crustaceans, small birds, mammals, worms, lizards and some insects.
The Grey heron and Great Blue heron will both consume ducklings and may do so regularly in the spring.
Close up of a Grey Heron
Herons have been videoed eating rabbits whole. Herons can eat a wide variety of mammals, including squirrels, rabbits, rats, mice and voles.
Certainly, a heron would make light work of a mouse.
Herons are carnivorous and would never choose to willingly consume plants. They are specialised carnivores.
It’d be a rare encounter, but herons could feasibly eat chicks.
Great White Egret (Ardea alba) in flight
There have been encounters observed between Goliath herons and Great blue herons and turtles - even snapping turtles. Herons have been known to choke on prey they can’t swallow, possibly including turtles.
Many herons will consume some percentage of molluscs as part of their diet. The Grey heron often consumes freshwater snails.
In addition to fish, amphibians and crustaceans, herons do eat mammals, including squirrels, though the encounter would be likely rare.
Herons would gain no real nutritional value from seeds as they are specialised carnivores that eat only meat.
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