What is a Heron?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A heron is a large wading bird in the family Ardeidae, which includes egrets and bitterns as well. Wetlands all over the world host herons, which have distinctive long legs and necks adapted to their unique natural habitat, and several species are threatened or endangered as a result of loss of habitat. Out of concern for the wetlands habitat, many nations are undertaking conservation programs, which will greatly assist herons along with many other animal and plant species. Herons are also related to storks, and the two families of birds are sometimes confused by people without birding experience.

Herons eat frogs.
Herons eat frogs.

The classic heron has a long neck and legs, along with a long, pointed bill. Their plumage can vary from pure white to smoky gray to blue, depending on the species, and most herons have a distinctive crest on their heads as well. Egrets look similar, but develop long decorative plumage during breeding season which led to near extinction of several species, as humans were fond of the decorative plumage for making hats and other decorative items. The bittern looks markedly different, being a much stouter bird with a short, thick neck and stocky legs.

Herons commonly live in wetland areas.
Herons commonly live in wetland areas.

The diet of a heron consists of whatever it can find in its environment. This usually includes fish, amphibians like frogs and salamanders, and aquatic insects. Some herons also eat small plants. The birds use their long bills to stir up the mud at the bottom of a wetland looking for food, filtering out nutritious edibles. They nest in stick platforms, which are sometimes built low to the water and sometimes located high in trees. Many naturalists have observed that herons seem to build rather precarious nests, but they usually manage to raise a clutch of chicks every year from a nest which the parents take turns incubating.

The largest heron in the world is the Goliath Heron, native to Africa. It can grow to over four feet (1.2 meters) in height, and has handsome gray and brown plumage. Like other herons, the Goliath Heron folds its neck during flight, but it does not trail its long legs behind it. Another heron species, the Great Blue Heron, is familiar to many birdwatchers in the Northern Hemisphere, especially the United States, and will grow to between 38-53 inches (97-137 centimeters), and it has a distinct blueish tinge. A variety of the Great Blue, the Great White, has pure white plumage, and it is found primarily in the Southern United States.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


A heron lives in the woods close to my town park.


Gray and white herons are so beautiful in flight. They look like they belong near the ocean with the other exotic water birds.

I live beside a lake. Herons frequently wade near the pier, and this really reminds me of sea birds. They stay there and stare down at the water until they see something move, and then they scoop it out and gulp it down their long neck. You can see it moving down, like when a snake eats a mouse.

I often photograph herons in flight. To me, they really complete the experience of living lakeside. An important part of this environment is the creatures it supports, and I like to see them doing well.


Herons remind me of flamingos. They stand on long stick-like legs, keeping their bodies dry.

I often see white herons flying low between the ponds on my property. My dog goes nuts and chases them away if she sees them, but if she’s not around, I can watch them walk slowly across the shallow end, jutting their necks out and retracting them as they move.

My younger sister calls them storks. She thinks we should go to the pond to look for babies. I try to tell her that they are herons, but she wants to keep her fantasy alive.


I love to watch heron birds when they are in their natural habitat. We have a blue heron who visits our pond quite often. I'm not sure if this is always the same one, but I have never seen more than one at a time.

It is very fascinating to watch it sit and patiently wait for its food. Sometimes it will sit in one spot for a very long time. I have watched this heron wait for fish from the pond.

I never get tired of watching them fly to and away from the pond. Even though they are quite large, they look graceful when they fly.

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