Wild Profile: Meet the great blue heron

Updated: July 9, 2019

By Joseph Scott Photography/Shutterstock

You can’t miss ’em: lean and long-legged, great blue herons are North America’s largest herons. They’re more than a metre tall, with a wingspan of two metres. And check out that cool, S-shaped neck! Unlike most birds, great blue herons have a special modified sixth vertebrae. This allows them to curl their necks and quickly strike, snake-like, at prey, then swallow their catches—often fish or frogs—whole.

For wild birds, herons are fastidious about their appearance. They have distinctive “powder down” feathers on their breasts and thighs. To clean themselves off, they use their beaks to crumble the feathers into dust, and then spread the dust over their bodies; this helps absorb the silt and grime that they’ve picked up while hunting and foraging in the water.

Great blue herons nest in huge colonies—up to 500 individual nests, in some cases—near lakes and ponds, often bordered by forest. In peak chick-hatching season, a.k.a. June, these chaotic rookeries get raucous with the hungry chattering of baby birds and the strange, dinosaur-like call of the adults: Frawnk! Frawnk!

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