Grey Heron

Grey Herons can be spotted fishing at places such as the Helford River or Windmill Farm. 
Photo: Ray Surridge

Scientific name: Ardea cinerea

Conservation status: IUCN Red List, Least Concern; Birds of Conservation Concern, low conservation concern.

Good places to see them: Helford Estuary, Windmill Farm 

A Grey Heron in flight is recognisable by the way it holds its head drawn back on its long neck (typical of all herons and bitterns) and the bowed shape of its wings in the form of a letter ‘M’. When spotted on the ground, often standing stock still at the water’s edge waiting to spear its prey with its dagger of a bill, it is its size (this is the largest of the European heron species, at up to I m tall), its black crest, and the yellow of its long legs and beak against the grey and white of its feathers that distinguish this familiar bird of our waterways.

Also familiar are the stick nests built in the tops of taller trees close to the water, usually in colonies called heronries. Grey Herons are faithful to their breeding colony sites: some have been in use for over a century. Eggs are laid at the beginning of spring, and are incubated in turn by both parents before hatching in about 25 days. Young herons are fed regurgitated fish by their parents.

Grey Herons are widely distributed, colonising freshwater systems across Britain, Europe, and Asia, and parts of Africa. There are four subspecies of Grey Heron across its wide range: it is Ardea cinerea ssp. cinerea we see in Britain. Their main food is fish, but they will also predate amphibians, small mammals and birds, as well as invertebrates. Outside of the breeding season, this is a solitary bird that is fairly intolerant of disturbance, preferring a quiet spot to hunt for its food.

Did you know…?

…City life: in the Netherlands, Grey Herons have adapted to urban life, cottoning on to the benefits of a trip to Amsterdam Zoo when the penguins and other fish-eating animals are being fed.

…Juggling act: Grey Herons often throw a fish in the air after catching it, and swallow it head-first. This is so the scales and fins don’t catch on their throat.

More information and references:

Gooders, J. and Harris, A., 1986. Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland. Kingfisher Books, London.

Published: November 2013
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Ray Surridge