Purple heron (Ardea purpurea)

French: Héron pourpré
GenusArdea (1)
SizeLength: 78 – 90 cm (2)
Wingspan: 120 – 150 cm (2)
Weight525 – 1345 g (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Despite its English common name, the purple heron actually has a chestnut-red head and neck with striking vertical black stripes, grey shoulders and outer-wings, and a rich chestnut stomach and inner-wings (3). The Spanish name for the purple heron is garza imperial, which translates as the ‘imperial heron’, perhaps a more suitable name for this vibrant-looking species. Its regal appearance is emphasised by the elongated golden-ochre beak, proportionally larger than most species of its genus (2). Its kinked, snake-like neck is coiled into an s-shape when in flight, and with longer toes than other similar species, the purple heron can wade over floating vegetation with ease (4) (5). Although both sexes are similar in appearance, the female is lighter than the male (2). The juvenile heron is duller, with a beige and brown chest, and it lacks the neck stripes and the extended plumage of the adult (3).

The purple heron is common throughout southern and eastern Europe, central and southern Asia, and Africa (6). Four subspecies are recognised: Ardea purpurea purpurea’s breeding range extends from eastern and southern Europe, east to Iran and as far south as South Africa (8). Ardea purpurea bournei breeds on Santiago Island in the Cape Verde Islands and Ardea purpurea madagascariensis occurs in Madagascar and the Seychelles. The breeding range of Ardea purpurea manilensis stretches from south of the Himalayas, through India to Sri Lanka, and east to China, Russia, and south-east Asia (8).

The purple heron inhabits wetland habitat such as swamps, reed-beds, rice-fields, and lake shores (2). It is found from sea-level up to an altitude of about 1,800 metres (2).

Usually feeding at dusk or dawn, the purple heron has a very varied diet consisting of fish, salamanders, frogs, insects, crustaceans, spiders, molluscs, small birds, mammals, snakes and lizards (6) (7). It hunts by hiding in vegetation and waiting motionless until prey approaches (2).

Populations breeding in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa are migratory and travel between breeding and wintering grounds (1). However, southern African and tropical Asian populations are non-migratory (2). The purple heron migrates by day, typically in small groups, although in Turkey it is known to migrate in large groups of 350 to 400 individuals (2). Purple herons often nest alongside other heron species, such as the grey heron (2), in groups that typically do not exceed 50 pairs; however, a colony of 1,000 pairs has been recorded (7). Between two and eight eggs are laid, which are incubated for 25 to 27 days, and the fledglings reach independence at around 45 to 50 days (2).

Due to its huge range, the purple heron is not currently considered to be globally threatened (1) (2) (7). Populations, however, are reportedly declining, mainly as a result of human-induced factors (2). The loss of its wetland habitat due to agriculture, drainage, pesticide use and reed cane harvesting has caused concern about some localised populations (2) (7) (8). Also, many flocks of purple herons are migratory and so are sensitive to changes in both their breeding and wintering grounds; for example, the number of breeding individuals recorded in Europe and survival rates after the first year are directly affected by the extent of drought in its African wintering grounds (2).

As this species is not currently considered to be at risk there are no direct conservation efforts in place. However, it is recognised that there is a global threat presented by wetland destruction, and the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance in Ramsar, Iran in 1990, allocated 30 million hectares of wetland for strict protection (2).  

To learn more about the conservation of wetlands see:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2010)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Grimmett, R. and Inskipp, T. (2005) Birds of Southern India. Christopher Helm Publishing, London.
  4. Perrins, C.M. (1990) The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Birds: The Definitive Guide to Birds of the World. Headline Book Publishing, UK.
  5. Grzimek , B. (1984) Animal Life Encyclopedia. Volume 7: Birds. Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York.
  6. Robinson, R.A. (2005) BirdFacts: Profiles of Birds Occurring in Britain and Ireland. BTO Research Report 407, BTO, Thetford
  7. BirdLife International (March, 2010)
  8. Kushlan, J.A. and Hancock, J.A. (2005) The Herons. Oxford University Press, Oxford.