Great blue herons are part of the Ardea genus, which is a genus of birds that includes the herons, egrets, and bitterns. These birds are typically pretty large in size, with lengths usually greater than 80–100 cm. You’re most likely to find members of this genus in wetlands and other partially aquatic habitats.
Great blue herons are carnivores, and they eat a variety of aquatic, semi-aquatic, and terrestrial prey. Their diet consists of predominantly fish, but they will eat pretty much anything that they can catch in their beaks. Fish are supplemented by amphibians, reptiles, small ground mammals, and even other birds. Great blue herons catch smaller prey in the jaws at the back of their beak, although they prefer to stab larger prey with their beaks.
There are 38 total feeding behaviors that have been recorded by members of the Ardea family. Each species in this genus uses multiple feeding methods — they’re creative hunters. Twelve of these strategies have been observed in great blue herons. The most commonly observed feeding behavior for the great blue heron is standing and waiting, where the heron simply stands still and waits for its prey to come to it. Herons also will move slowly, either through the water or through a field, in search of prey. More dramatically, the great blue heron will occasionally plunge-dive, diving down quickly and with force, to catch its prey. A particularly interesting feeding behavior of the great blue heron is to stick its bill in the water, and vibrate it. The underwater vibrations create ripples, attracting fish and other aquatic prey.
Great blue herons prefer to live in wetlands, especially when nesting. Rather than nesting alone, great blue herons nest in colonies. Colony nesting is particularly common for birds that live in aquatic environments. Colonies can have over 500 nests (so easily over a thousand birds) all relatively close together. For large scale habitats and especially for colony nesting, great blue herons have preferences for certain types of habitats over others. The lacustrine wetlands is a particular favorite of Illinois great blue herons. Lacustrine wetlands are any wetland or deepwater area that has these three characteristics:
- Located in a valley/depression in the ground
- Lacking trees, shrubs, and other plant life that covers more than 30% of the area
- At least 20 acres in surface area
Biologists believe that herons may prefer this biome for their habitats due to the easy access to their preferred prey of small bodied vertebrates. Additionally, large wetlands tend to be isolated from human activity, which great blue herons tend to avoid if possible.
Combs, B. P. (2021). Great Blue Heron Forages for Fish by Bill-Vibrating. Western North American Naturalist, 81(2), 280–284. https://doi.org/10.3398/064.081.0213
Gibbs, J. P., & Kinkel, L. K. (1997). Determinants of the Size and Location of Great Blue Heron Colonies. Colonial Waterbirds, 20(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.2307/1521757
Knight, E. C., Vennesland, R. G., & Winchester, N. N. (2016). Importance of Proximity to Foraging Areas for the Pacific Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias fannini) Nesting in a Developed Landscape. Waterbirds, 39(2), 165–174. https://doi.org/10.1675/063.039.0207