Grey heron (Ardea cinerea)

French: Héron cendré
GenusArdea (1)
SizeWingspan: 155-175 cm (2)
Length (with neck outstretched): 84-102 cm (2)

The grey heron is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Included in the Birds of Conservation Concern Green List (low conservation concern) (3).

The grey heron (Ardea cinerea) is the largest heron in Europe (4). It has a long neck, a strong, dagger-like bill and long yellow legs (2). In flight, the neck is folded back (5), and the wings are bowed (2). In adults, the forehead, sides of the head and the centre of the crown are white, whereas in juveniles these are greyish (2). The sexes are similar in appearance (2).

Common and widespread throughout Britain (4). The grey heron is known throughout most of temperate Europe, and extends through Russia as far east as Japan. It reaches south through China to India, and is also found in parts of Africa, and in Madagascar (5).

The grey heron occurs in most freshwater habitats, including rivers lakes, ponds and reservoirs (5).

The grey heron feeds mainly on fish (5), which it hunts by patiently standing completely still at the side of the water, and striking rapidly when a fish comes into range (2). The prey is caught in the bill or speared; amphibians, small mammals, birds and invertebrates may also be taken (5). Feeding areas are often vigorously defended against intruders (4). It breeds either solitarily or in colonies, called heronries, in woodland close to water (2). The heronries are usually traditional sites used by successive generations (5). The flat nest of sticks is built in the crown of the tree early in the year, and four or five eggs are laid towards the end of March (5), though often earlier in mild winters (6). Both parents share the duties of incubation, which takes 25 to 26 days. The young, which are covered in down in their first days of life and are fed on regurgitated fish, fledge after 20 to 30 days (5).

The grey heron is not currently threatened; indeed it is increasing its range, and is now more abundant in Britain than it has ever been since monitoring of heronries began in 1928 (7). This may be the result of an increase in temperature during winter, and a fall in levels of persecution (7).

There is no conservation action targeted at this common species.

For more information on the grey heron and other bird species:

Information authenticated by the RSPB:

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
  2. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterstrom, D., & Grant, P.J. (1999) Collins Bird Guide. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, London.
  3. RSPB (2003) The population status of birds in the UK:
  4. Lack, P. (1986) The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland. T. & A. D. Poyser Ltd, Calton.
  5. Gooders, J. (1982) Collins British Birds. William Collins Sons and Co Ltd, London.
  6. RSPB (2003): Pers. comm.
  7. BTO Breeding birds in the wider countryside (November 2002)