Study of… a grey heron

With its mighty wingspan, dagger-like beak and black tassel trailing from the back of its head, the grey heron could pass for a pterodactyl soaring overhead. But this is no prehistoric flying reptile – this is our feathered king of the waterways; an elegant hunter with a powerful set of vocal chords and curious preening habits.

These grey, white and black birds stand at 1 metre (3ft) tall with a wingspan of 1.8 metres (6ft). They have long yellow legs, long necks and a sharp pick-like bill. In flight, they keep their head drawn back with their legs trailing comically behind. Fledglings are gawky looking with punk hairdos.

Thanks to the cleaning up of the waterways, heron numbers are on the rise and are a common sight along our rivers, canals, ponds, lakes and reservoirs. They're also frequently sighted in cities, as well as the countryside. Dips in numbers usually coincide with harsh winters, when ponds and streams freeze over and food is scarce.

Grey herons have special feathers on their breast called powder down. They crush these feathers into granules, then spread it all over themselves. The granules soak up dirt from the feathers and help keep it waterproof, too.

Grey herons mate for life. Before courtship, a dance ceremony usually takes place – the male stretches its long neck up then lowers it over its back, plumage erect. The breeding season is a long one, from March to June.

Despite their large size, these wading birds like to build nests high in the trees rather than on the ground (although they do sometimes build nests among reeds), most likely to keep their eggs away from predators. Heronries can be very large; single trees have been known to hold as many as 10 nests, its branches splattered with droppings. Eggs are laid as early as February.

Listen out for a harsh screeching call, rather akin to a bloodcurdling ‘fraaaaaank!’ Heronries are a wonderful spectacle to visit in spring for the squawking and rattling noises from the chicks alone, although it's advised to avoid visiting until April/May when there's less chance of disturbing the nests.

A characteristic trait of the grey heron is to stand motionless on one leg in shallow waters, neck extended. Then suddenly it pounces, stabbing at its prey with its bill. It swallows prey whole, then goes to stand somewhere, like a field, to digest its hefty meal.

Grey herons eat fish, amphibians, small birds and small mammals, such as rats and water voles. When eating furry creatures, they've been spotted dipping the prey in water, as if to soften it, before swallowing it headfirst.

Curious fact
The grey heron was once a royal game bird and often the crowning glory of a medieval banqueting table.

Words: Abigail Whyte


Last date edited: 5 March 2015

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