- Ardea cinerea
Length 90–98 cm (35½-38½ in), wingspan 175–195 cm, weight 1–2 kg
- Bright white crown
- Black line running from above and behind the eye to the nape and extending as a pair of short plumes
- White neck with a double row of black streaks down the throat
- Underparts pale grey
- Black patch from shoulder down to flanks
- Grey back and wings
- Long, yellow bill (becomes orange-pink in courtship)
- Greenish-yellow legs and feet
- All-grey underwing
- Juvenile duller and drabber, with dark grey crown, grey neck and greyish-yellow bill
- Second year intermediate between juvenile and adult
Great Blue Heron of the Americas is similar but larger with longer legs, longer neck and narrower black crown stripes. Great Blue has rufous thighs and leading edge of wing. Purple Heron is smaller and slimmer with rufous-brown coloration. Black-headed Heron has a black head and contrasting black and white underwings. Humblot's Heron is is much darker and lacks the dark shoulder patch. White-bellied Heron and Great-billed Heron are both much larger and drabber.
A very widespread Old World species breeding across much of Eurasia and Africa.
Breeds throughout the British Isles and much of mainland Europe from north and central France north to coastal Scandinavia and east across Russia to Sakhalin, Manchuria and Japan. In the south found at scattered localities from Iberia to Greece and Turkey, the Caucasus and east across southern Asia, India and Indochina south to Sumatra and Java.
In Africa breeds on the Mediterranean coast and in the Nile Valley, on the Banc D'Arguin in Mauritania, probably also on the Azores, in West Africa, western Madagascar and from Ethiopia south to South Africa.
Northernmost birds are migratory and winter range is more extensive in Europe, Africa, south-west Asia and Indonesia.
Vagrant north to Greenland and Svalbard and to the south a rare resident/migrant or vagrant to Azores and Cape Verde Islands. Also recorded on Bermuda, the West Indies and Newfoundland.
There are 4 subspecies:
- A. c. cinerea: as described above.
- occurs over most of range except as below
- A. c. monicae: palest of all, looking very white and easily distinguished.
- on the Banc D'Arguin of Mauritania
- A. c. jouyi: paler on the neck and upperwing coverts, reduced black shoulder patch, lacks buff on neck.
- A. c. firasa: similar to cinerea but averages longer bill and legs.
The subspecies differ slightly in size and grey tone; A. c. monicae is the palest subspecies.
Colonial breeder, usually in trees, sometimes on a cliff or in reedbeds; A. c. monicae nests on the ground on islets. Frequents the margins of a variety of freshwater including lakes, streams and swamps, brackish lagoons and estuaries, and often sea coasts. Also feeds or rests on grassland.
In some parts of range a common bird in urban areas. The Grey Heron is a familiar bird of lakes, rivers, pans and also rocky coastlines where it is usually seen hunting in shallow water.
Like others of the family, the Grey Heron flies with its long neck retracted and the head pulled back into its shoulders. They have occasionally been observed to swim.
Birds spend long periods standing still in the water, waiting patiently for prey to swim within range of a lightning fast lunge of the bill. Opportunist feeders, they eat a wide variety of fish, invertebrates, land animals, such as rats and young rabbits. They will also eat ducklings and other birds, even swifts and swallows.
Colonial breeders, often mixed with other species such as egrets, cormorants and spoonbills. The colony is almost always associated with water - fresh or salt. The nest is an untidy platform of sticks, usually at the top of a tall tree. Usual clutch size is 3-4 eggs.
Extreme northern populations are migratory. Further south they tend to be sedentary or dispersive.
The call is a harsh kraaank.
Listen to Grey Heron sound clip
Listen to Grey Heron sound clip
An adult flying overhead and giving continuous calls. Recording © by Alok Tewari
Nazafgarh Wetlands and Marshes, Gurgaon, Haryana, India, January 2017
Click on photo for larger image
Immature - Notice the two white spots at the bend of the wing.
Photo © by NJLarsen
Saint Andrews, Barbados, 8 April 2023
Photo © by semenov
Kyoto, 9 October 2008
- Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2018. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: v2018. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/
- Power, R.J. Grey Heron Ardea cinerea "spearfishing" swifts?. Biodiversity Observations, [S.l.], p. 4 - 5, jan. 2013. ISSN 2219-0341. Available at: <https://journals.uct.ac.za/index.php/BO/article/view/181>. Date accessed: 27 apr. 2019 - See also: https://flic.kr/p/U1Yjy9
- Fitter RSR 1966 Collins Pocket Guide to British Birds
- Peterson, RT, G Mountfort and PAD Hollom. 1993. Collins Field Guide – Birds of Britain and Europe, 5th Revised edition. London: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 978-0002199001
- Svensson, L & PJ Grant Collins Bird Guide ISBN 0 00 219728 6
- Swimming Grey Heron, Birdforum discussion thread
- Hancock, J & J Kushlan 1984. The Herons Handbook. Harper & Row, New York.
- Ali, S & SD Ripley (1987). Compact Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan. Edition 2. Oxford University Press.
- Hancock, J. & H. Elliott (1978) The Herons of the World. Harper & Row
- Martínez-Vilalta, A., Motis, A. & Kirwan, G.M. (2018). Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from https://www.hbw.com/node/52674 on 14 August 2018).
- Palmer, R. (1962) Handbook of North American Birds, Vol 1: Loons through Flamingos. Yale Univ. Press.
- Rasmussen, PC & Anderton, JC (2005) Birds of South Asia. The Ripley Guide. Vols. 1 and 2. Smithsonian Institution & Lynx Edicions, Washington, D.C. & Barcelona
- BirdForum Opus contributors. (2023) Grey Heron. In: BirdForum, the forum for wild birds and birding. Retrieved 9 December 2023 from https://www.birdforum.net/opus/Grey_Heron
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