Great Blue Heron
Carolyn Gritzmaker Indian Trail Master Naturalist
Like a lonely sentinel, the great blue heron(Ardea herodias) stands motionless as it fishes in shallow waters. Often seen along streams, stock tanks and lakes, this is the largest member of the heron family in North America. Standing a majestic four feet tall, the great blue has a wing span of up to seven feet. The adult bird has a white head with two black plumes, a brownish-gray neck, black shoulder patches, and the rest of its plumage is grayish-blue.
One common name for the great blue heron is the blue crane, but it is not a crane at all. In flight, herons are easily told apart from cranes; the herons flying with their neck drawn in, the cranes with neck outstretched like geese. On the ground, cranes’ tail feathers droop to form a ”bustle” which the herons do not have.
The great blue heron is most active just before dawn and at dusk. It will stand in shallow water with its neck folded into a flattened S-shape, and wait for a fish, frog, or other prey to come within striking distance. Then suddenly, its long neck will straighten as it strikes with its sharp, pointed bill. The heron will usually catch small fish crosswise in its bill, but larger fish may be speared. When moving through the water in search of food, the great blue lifts each foot above the surface and slides it back into the water so easily that it hardly causes a ripple. Besides eating small non-game fish and frogs, great blue herons also eat snakes, salamanders, crayfish, grasshoppers and dragonflies. They have been found to visit cultivated fields and dry meadows away from water to feed on pocket gophers, ground squirrels and field mice. The great blue swallows its food whole, and later will regurgitate the undigested parts in a pellet.
Usually a solitary bird, the great blue becomes gregarious during the breeding season. Forming colonies of a few pair to over one hundred pairs, they build flat platform nests in tall trees near water. The twig nests are usually about 18 inches across when first built, but if used several years in a row may become large, bulky structures. Sometimes several nests are found in one tree. Unless the birds are seriously disturbed, they will probably return to the same nesting site for many years.
The great blue heron is a permanent resident in Ellis county. Their numbers increase somewhat in winter when other great blues move into the area.