The Kennedy Wild Bird Food Guide to the Grey Heron

The grey heron is an unmistakable wild bird with long legs and an outstretched neck. The mere mention of these features creates an image in your mind, doesn’t it! The grey heron is much more than its interesting appearance, however – they’re master hunters and generally very clever birds.

So, without further ado, here is our guide to the grey heron.

What does a grey heron look like?

The grey heron (scientific name Ardeidae) are sturdily built, rather imposing-looking birds. They have strong, almost dagger-like beaks with long slender necks. Their legs are quite spindly (that said, you don’t want to underestimate their strength of character).

Their plumage is mostly grey. The grey heron’s head has white feathers with thick black stripes either side (these stripes also flank their wings, too). 

Herons are often mistaken for cranes – the main difference is how the birds hold their heads in flight. The head, beak, and neck of a heron weighs proportionately more than their body which forces them to bunch the head back when flying (they’re effectively resting the head on their body). For cranes, they can fly with their necks outstretched no problem.

what does grey heron look like

What does a grey heron sound like?

In groups of herons, there are a range of sounds that they can create, all guttural and hard to describe. A ‘squawk’ is probably the easiest way to put it! Many describe their calls as a loud croaking ‘fraaaaaank’.

The interesting thing about the grey heron song is how the male will use it to attract females – once both sexes are bonded, they will have various greeting calls interchangeable between them (recognisable only to them, which is nice!). 

Click the link below to hear the grey heron song.

What do grey herons eat?

The grey heron diet consists mostly of fish which they can catch quite deftly with their long beaks. They have also been known to eat ducklings and small amphibians. They can even hunt for rodents when they venture on land (our fat balls for birds would go down a treat!).

Grey heron breeding and behaviour

Grey herons usually lay around six eggs in May, and are incubated by both sexes (unusual given that it’s usually the female bird that does this). Eggs are incubated for around 25-28 days, and within 50 days of hatching the young birds will learn how to fly. Very quick learners!

Where do herons live?

In terms of migration, grey herons spend their winters in western and eastern Europe. Autumn migration occurs between August and early November. Aside from these areas of Europe, these birds have also been known to frequent countries as diverse as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, numerous Mediterranean islands and even the Sahara Desert.

They’re very widespread in the UK and can be found at canals, lakes, ponds, and rivers across the country.

grey heron guide

Interesting grey heron facts

  • They have the ability to adapt to city living, as long as habitats and appropriate nesting spaces are available. They have established themselves in numerous urban environments in the Netherlands and have adapted well to modern urban life.
  • They have been known to steal food from zoos enclosures (victims of grey heron thievery include penguins, otters, pelicans, and seals).
  • Grey heron courtship involves the male calling out to a female. Quite normal, really. However, once the female arrives the birds often participate in a ‘snapping ceremony’ where they extend their necks before bringing their heads low to the ground. Here, they knock beaks together to celebrate their coming together.
  • An anxious grey heron will make this sound: “gogogogogo”, which is arguably more recognisable than their normal call.

Have you seen a grey heron?

If you’ve seen this beautiful bird, make sure you log it using our BirdSpotter app. Because they’re so widespread in the UK, other bird enthusiasts will benefit from knowing where exactly they can see the great grey heron.

In the meantime, stay tuned to our blog section – it has endless wild bird-related insights.