Wilderness Underfoot: The Great Blue Heron

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114366044920711.jpg’, ”, ‘The great blue heron – Ardea herodias. Three clues will help you guess the diet of this bird: the long bill, the long neck and the long legs. It’s a safe guess that any bird with this body form lives near water and feeds on fish and aquatic animals. People often mistake the great blue heron for a crane, but it can be easily distinguished by its gray-blue color and distinctive shape. In flight, this bird’s neck retains its curviness, while the crane’s neck straightens. Fully grown, the great blue heron is exceptionally large compared with most of the other birds in Illinois. Its wingspan is 6 feet across, and it stands nearly 4 feet tall.’);

One of our largest birds, the great blue heron is returning this month

Look for this magnificent bird near rivers, wetlands and water bodies from March to November. The great blue heron is migratory, and spends the rest of the year in southern regions. In our region, it is especially common along large, sparsely populated waterways, such as the Kishwaukee, Pecatonica and Sugar rivers.

Great blue herons spend much of their time alone, but when breeding build clusters of nests (known as rookeries) together in tall trees. Hundreds of nests may be found in a single large wetland. Their nests are rather bulky, roughly built with sticks, and a lining of leaves and twigs. Some of these birds prefer nesting alone, rather than rookeries.

The great blue heron is a quiet stalker, patiently standing for long periods in shallow waters, waiting for fish to swim by. It strikes quickly, spearing larger fish and snapping up smaller ones with its spear-like bill. It will also eat insects, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals—essentially, anything it can swallow. Gizzard shad, carp, buffalo fish and sunfish make up the greater part of its diet. It may wade around to drive its prey out of hiding, and on rare occasions, it may dive or swim after prey.

Nabbing food seems to be the only thing the great blue heron does fast. It spends most of its time standing and wading in water, or lingering in trees. Its flight is slow and graceful. Don’t expect beautiful music from this bird. It rarely makes any sound at all, with the exception of low grunting, croaking and squawking around its nest, or a loud warning croak just before taking off if it is disturbed.

We’re fortunate to be able to see great blue herons. Around the turn of the 20th century, these elegant creatures were nearly extinct. Although the great blue heron remains common along the major rivers in our state, this nongame protected bird has shown a decline in numbers over the past decade. Studies have not been done to determine why, but it may be associated with loss of habitat.

From the March 29-April 4, 2006, issue

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