A common but impressive waterbird, the Grey Heron can be seen along waterways throughout the United Kingdom. These tall birds use their remarkably long necks to spear their fish prey at range and with great speed.
The Grey Heron is a tall, unmistakable bird with a long S-shaped neck. They have long yellow legs and a straight yellowish bill. These birds are grey overall, but their head is white with a bold black stripe from above each eye to the nape of the neck, extending as a short wispy crest. They also have black stripes on the throat and shoulders.
In flight, Grey Herons hold their necks coiled back in a distinct S-shape, and their long legs trail out far beyond the end of the tail. They may soar at great heights and can resemble a large bird of prey. Their body appears whitish, and their broad wings have a darker grey shade when seen from below.
Females appear similar to males but average smaller. Juvenile Grey Herons have more uniform grey plumage than adults. Young birds also have darker grey legs and lack the plumes and black head and shoulder markings of mature specimens.
Grey Herons appear similar to the Great Blue Heron of North America, although the two species rarely occur together. Check out this in-depth comparison to learn more about distinguishing between them.
Grey Heron standing on a branch
Grey Herons have a body length of 90 to 98 centimetres or about three feet.
Despite their height and length, these lanky birds weigh just one to two kilograms.
Grey Herons have broad wings and a large wingspan of 1.75 to 1.95 metres.
Grey Heron scratching itself
The Grey Heron is most often heard in flight when it produces a loud, piercing squawk. They also make a variety of other calls around the nesting colony, including the male's advertisement call to attract a female and a ‘go go’ alarm call.
Grey heron in the nest squawking
Fish and frogs form the bulk of the Grey Heron diet, and they hunt by striking their prey with their sharp bill and coiled neck. These birds will take just about any small animal they can catch, including rodents, other birds, reptiles, and insects.
Grey Heron chicks eat regurgitated fish and other animals from their parents.
Grey Heron feeding on a fish
Grey Herons are usually associated with aquatic and tidal habitats, although they occasionally forage in nearby grasslands and fields. They hunt around shallow fresh or saltwater bodies with a healthy population of fish and other prey items, and they require tall trees for roosting and nesting.
Look for Grey Herons in the following habitats:
Grey Herons occur in suitable habitats throughout the United Kingdom. Elsewhere the species is widespread across Europe and Asia to Japan and Indonesia. They are also widespread in Africa south of the Sahara desert.
Grey Herons spend most of their time on the ground, usually standing motionless or stalking along the margins of a pond or river. These birds can swim but prefer to keep their feet firmly planted. Herons also spend time above the ground on poles and perched in trees.
Grey Herons are common birds in suitable habitats. You can expect to see them on any visit to a local waterway.
Grey Heron standing motionless in the wetland
Grey Herons are easy to find in the United Kingdom. Visit any wetland, lake, pond, or even the seashore for a chance to spot these handsome waterbirds. Visiting a heronry (heron nesting colony) in the breeding season provides wonderful observations of Grey Heron behaviour.
Accessible UK heronries can be seen at:
Grey Herons do show up in North America, although they are a rare vagrant there. They have been spotted near the west coast of Alaska and near the east coast of Massachusetts and Newfoundland.
Grey Heron near to the lake getting ready to take-off
Grey Herons can live for over 23 years in the wild, although the typical life expectancy of birds that reach adulthood is about five years.
Adult Grey Herons have few natural enemies, although their eggs and young are vulnerable to opportunistic predators like foxes and crows.
Grey Herons are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 in the United Kingdom.
Grey Herons are not an endangered species. These common waterbirds have a green conservation status in the United Kingdom and a ‘Least Concern’ status on the IUCN Red List.
Grey Heron perching on broken branches
Grey Herons usually nest in colonies called heronries, often with other birds like the Little Egret and Cormorant. These colonies can hold anything from two to over a thousand nests and are usually found in large trees.
The nest is a large twig platform that may last several years and be used multiple times. The male collects the material for the nest, but the female does the construction.
Grey Herons begin nesting in February or March in the United Kingdom. Their eggs hatch after about 26 days, and the chicks fledge the nest 50 to 55 days later.
What do Grey Heron eggs look like?
Grey Herons typically lay a single clutch of three to six blueish-green eggs, each measuring approximately 61 millimetres long and 43 millimetres wide.
Grey Herons do not mate for life, preferring instead to find a new partner each year.
Grey Heron approaching the nest with nesting materials in its beak
Grey Heron parent feeding its young at the nest
Grey Herons can be aggressively territorial over feeding areas and may get into serious fights with intruders. They may warn their opponent by raising their crest and performing stabbing motions with their neck. Chicks can be highly aggressive towards each other, and older chicks often kill their younger siblings, especially when food is scarce.
Grey Herons may be active at any time of day or night. They may rest on the ground, but these birds generally sleep in trees where they are safe from ground predators.
Grey Herons fighting over fish
Grey Herons in the United Kingdom do not migrate, although they undertake lengthy migrations between northern breeding grounds and southern overwintering areas in other parts of their extensive range. Some birds migrate from Scandinavia to enjoy the UK’s relatively mild winter.
Grey Herons are native to the United Kingdom.
Grey Heron in-flight
Grey Herons do not visit most gardens, and they are not attracted to bird tables. However, they will hunt at larger water features, often to the dismay of ornamental fish keepers. Installing a large pond or water garden is a wonderful way to attract herons and many other bird species, although you will need to accept that these birds eat live fish and frogs.
Family:Herons, storks and ibises
90cm to 98cm
175cm to 195cm
1000g to 2kg
Great Blue Heron
Poised to strike, the Great Blue Heron stalks along American waterways in search of fish and other small animals. These widespread waterbirds are among the tallest of North America’s birds.
The South American counterpart of North America’s great blue heron, Cocoi herons are long-legged wading birds, found in a range of wetland landscapes across the continent. They are carnivorous, foraging for large fish and crustaceans in shallow water.
A small member of the heron family, barely larger than a pigeon, the little bittern is an extremely rare breeding visitor to Britain, with only limited reports of the species in the UK since the first official record in 1984.
Once considered a rare vagrant to Britain, records of sightings of Purple Herons are increasing and occasional reports of breeding exist, although are difficult to substantiate.
Owners of some of the most specialised bills in the bird world, Spoonbills forage in small groups, methodically sweeping through the water in search of small aquatic creatures to snack on. Although rare, these unique birds are making a steady comeback in the United Kingdom.
Often thought of as a newcomer, the Little Egret is actually making a triumphant return to waterways around the UK.
The largest all-white egret in most parts of its range, these tall, stately waterbirds are widespread in temperate and tropical areas across the globe.
Originating in Africa, the western Mediterranean and sub-tropical Asia, the cattle egret has expanded naturally over the last hundred years to South America in the late 1800’s and North America as recently as the early 1950’s. Australia recorded its first migrants in 1940 whilst New Zealand’s population of egrets was established as late as 1960.
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