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Blue Herons: They're Grrrreat!
BY Emily Bootsma
ON June 22, 2018
   A heron stands motionless in the shallow waters of the marsh, her keen eyes scanning for fish beneath the surface. Her long, slender neck is bent in a distinctive s-shape and her shaggy grey wings are neatly folded against her back. Once she spots her prey, the heron strikes in the blink of an eye, snatching a fish from the water with her blade-like bill and immediately swallowing it whole.

   Great Blue Herons are the most common species of heron here in North America. With a height of 3.2 - 4.5 feet and a wingspan of 5.5 - 6.6 feet, they are also the largest. They can be easily recognized by a number of characteristics, including their tall stature, long legs, large yellow bill, shaggy grey feathers, s-shaped neck, and the blue crest that gives them their name.

   Blue herons always live near water, and can be found by lakes, rivers, creeks, marshes, and oceans. Though they hunt in the water, they make their nests in trees or occasionally shrubs, and like to be in close proximity to forests or tall trees. This makes Cootes Paradise Marsh an ideal habitat for these herons, and they can often be seen flying around the marsh or hunting for the fish that make up most of their diet. Herons also frequently eat other small animals, including mice, insects, crayfish, and frogs. They swallow their prey whole, and have been known to choke (sometimes to death) while trying to fit an especially large fish down their throats. Though they hunt alone, herons nest in groups called “rookeries,” which consist of many heron nests close together in tall trees. Herons can nest in groups of up to 100 birds, providing added security from predators.

   Heron nests may be used multiple years in a row by different pairs of herons. When trying to attract a mate, male herons will often choose a previously built nest or construct a new one. A female heron will choose one mate each breeding season and will stick with that mate throughout the course of the spring and summer. The female heron lays two to seven pale blue eggs at once, each egg being about as large as two or three chicken eggs. The mother and the father equally share parenting duties, including protecting and incubating the eggs. Sadly, less than half of the herons that hatch will survive past one year. Once the young herons leave the nest, they migrate south for the winter along with all the other herons. Because herons’ primary food source is fish, they need to migrate south for the winter to avoid areas where the water freezes and prevents them from fishing.

   Thankfully, Great Blue Herons are far from being a threatened species, and many live in Canada and other parts of the world. Cootes Paradise Marsh is an ideal heron habitat and we have quite a few that live and hunt there in the summer before migrating south in the winter. Next time you are near the marsh, keep your eyes peeled, and you might just see a beautiful Great Blue Heron!

Sources
https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Ardea_herodias/#lifespan_longevity
https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/animal-facts-great-blue-heron
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/g/great-blue-heron/
Author Bio - Emily Bootsma
Emily is a spring intern at BARC.
Emily is a spring intern at BARC.

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