Sometimes known as the Grey Heron, the Heron is one of the most distinctive British birds commonly seen. It is a striking patient hunter of the marshes and river systems frequently seen standing in the shallows waiting for prey. The Grey Heron is the largest European Heron standing up to 1 meter tall with a wingspan reaching nearly 2 meters and weighting up to 2kg. Prey which ranges from fish and frogs to mice, water voles, eels and small snakes are swallowed whole, head first if size allows, while larger prey are stabbed by the bill until dead and taken to the river bank to be eaten bit by bit. They will also raid garden ponds for gold fish and Koy Carp much to the owner’s annoyance and will hunt over an area of up to 12 miles if they need to. In the past they have been killed as a threat to commercial fish farms in both the UK and Europe and 800 are estimated to have been shot or poisoned each year between 1984 and 1987 on Scottish Fish farms.
Together with the similar Bittern it is one of the few species of Heron that breeds in the UK with the purple Heron being a European visitor, outside the UK it can be found throughout all but the most northern parts of Europe and extending across Russia and central Asia. Population in the UK is thought to be around 14,000 breeding pairs and to be fairly stable. In the Netherlands numbers have rapidly increased in recent years as the birds have colonised more urban areas and have been seen feeding on discarded food and even taking food from humans or raiding feeding time at zoos for fish eating birds.
Courtship includes ‘Dance’ behaviour with the male stretching his head and neck back with bill pointing towards the sky. Once a nest is made (which can be in reed beds or even sea cliffs) the pair will return to the same nest year after year, eggs are laid between February and March and number 3-5 of a light blue colour with incubation during which a parent stands guard takes about 25 days. This protection continues over the young until they leave the nest after about 8 weeks.