The grey heron is a big, strongly built heron. This species is one of the UK’s most recognisable birds. Their colouring is largely grey above and greyish-white below. They have a strong, straight, dagger-shaped yellow bill that they use to harpoon fish. Grey herons are also known for their long legs and narrow white neck, which is often extended when fishing but completely retracted when in flight. They have an unmistakeable black eye stripe that extends into the black feathers at the back of their head.
Grey herons are characteristically seen waiting patiently, stock still, for prey on lakeshores, coastlines and along the sides of rivers or estuaries. The grey heron has a graceful slow flight pattern with typically bowed wings. In flight, it pulls its neck into the body while stretching its legs out behind creating a very distinctive silhouette.
Herons can live in several different habitats with shallow fresh, salt or brackish water. Although they are solitary birds when feeding, they form groups during the breeding season, when they build nests (flat baskets of sticks) in trees, often forming large colonies, referred to as heronries. The majority of nests are constructed in the crown of the tree, at least 25m above the ground. During courtship, the males perform a mating display, which includes powerful wing beats and raised neck and black head plumes. Pairs stay together for the entirety of the breeding season, the female laying anything from 1 to 10 eggs, from which only 3-5 chicks usually fledge. Chicks can fly at about 50 days old, but often remain at the nest for a further 10-20 days.
- Length 84-102cm
- Wingspan 155-195cm
- Weight: 1-2kg
- Average Lifespan: 5-10 years
Classified in the UK as Green under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4: the Red List for Birds (2015). Protected by The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Widely distributed across most of Scotland, but rarer in Shetland and Orkney.
When to see
- The old English name for a heron was ‘hragra’; other names now largely fallen into disuse include ‘harn’, ‘hernser’ and ‘hernshaw’. Heron comes from the French, ‘héron céndre’.
- Despite their size, they are surprisingly light, weighing on average only half as much as a greylag goose.
- Herons are among the earliest nesters. It’s not unusual for some birds to lay their first eggs in early February (at least in Southern Scotland), though the normal start is in March, peaking at the end of the month.