Yellowstone Natural History: Great Blue Herons

It’s a special treat in Yellowstone National Park to see Great Blue Herons wading in one of the Park’s many waterways.

Described as statue-like in poise and composure, a Great Blue Heron will walk the waters, neck curved to a strikingly sinuous S, until—whap!—it’s got a trout or a frog. And with a gulp the fish is gone; the heron moves on, a living artwork in the scenery.

It’s equally impressive seeing these large birds soar or, even better, alight on a waterway.

Although Great Blue Herons are by no mean unique to Yellowstone, they’re still a marvelous surprise to see in places like the Hayden Valley or along the Madison River.


Basic Facts

  • Scientific name: Ardea herodias.
  • Most common and largest heron in North America.
  • Distinguished by their long bills and blue cap and wing feathers.
  • Body is slate-gray and white.
  • Both male and female Great Blue Herons measure 38-54 inches long.
  • Wingspan: 65.7-79 inches.
  • Weigh 74 to 88 ounces.
  • Great Blue Heron necks can bend to a sinuous S shape, making them more aerodynamic and better at striking at prey.


  • Live in both freshwater and saltwater habitats.
  • Great Blue Herons will also forage in grasslands and farm fields.
  • Often forage alone.
  • Live in breeding colonies, often found two to four miles from favorite feeding areas.
  • Colonies often found in isolated swamps or islands, near forest-bound lakes and ponds.
  • Great Blue Herons will defend their territories with a specialized stance—head thrown back, beak skyward, wings outstretched.


  • Strike at a variety of prey.
  • Fish is a staple of diet.
  • Other prey includes amphibians, reptiles, insects—even small mammals and other birds.


  • Great Blue Herons have two assets when it comes to hunting: strong mandibles and dagger-like bills.
  • These come in handy with larger fish, who often get shook around with spine-breaking force before a heron feeds.
  • Great Blue Herons have another advantageous adaptation: specialized chest feathers that can be used to wash fish slime and oils from their feathers.
  • Finally, heron eyes contain a large percentage of rod-type photoreceptors, enabling them to hunt day and night.


  • Great Blue Herons will build nests from available materials, sometimes using unguarded or abandoned nests.
  • Males will present their nest to a female, who can decide whether to build her portion.
  • Females will weave a platform and nest cup, lining it with pine needles, dry grass, mangrove leaves, moss, and other materials.
  • Nest building can take anywhere from three days to two weeks.
  • A finished nest measures an average of 20 inches across.
  • Some nests used year after year will become more elaborate over time, widening and deepening.
  • A mature Great Blue Heron nest can measure upwards of four feet across and three-and-a-half feet deep.

great blue heron flying


  • Courtship is elaborate, taking place in a colony of nesting pairs.
  • Number upwards in the hundreds and even thousands.
  • Displays include ritualized greetings, stick transfers and nest relief ceremony.
  • Great Blue Herons will erect plumes and “clapper” bill tips to attract females.
  • Herons are seasonally monogamous but choose different mates through their lives.


  • Great Blue Herons lay two to six eggs.
  • One to two broods per year.
  • Eggs measure two-and-a-half to three inches long and two inches wide.
  • Coloring: pale blue.
  • Incubate for 27-29 days.
  • Great Blue Herons will nest for 49-81 days.

Blue and White

  • A variety of Great Blue Heron, called the “great white heron” is found exclusively in southern Florida, the Yucatan Peninsula, and the Caribbean.
  • Known to overlap—blue and white great heron hybrids are called “Wurdemann’s herons.”
  • Wurdemann’s herons have the body of a Great Blue Heron with a white heron’s head and neck coloring.

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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