The great blue heron (Ardea herodias) is the largest of the North American herons with gangly legs, a sinuous neck, and a thick, dagger-like bill. Its slatey plumage appears shaggy. In flight, the great blue curls its neck into a tight “S” shape; its wings are broad and rounded and its legs trail well beyond the tail.
Herons usually hunt alone while standing in shallow water or at the water's edge, especially around dawn and dusk. A heron often wades slowly or stands patiently waiting to quickly spear unwary fish or frogs with its long, sharp bill.
Some paleontologists have commented that herons bear a close resemblance in appearance and habit to the great wading dinosaurs.
Herons may also feed by hovering over water and picking up prey, diving headfirst into the water, alighting on water feet-first, jumping from perches feet-first, and swimming or floating on the surface of the water. When it is beneficial to locating schools of fish, herons may form loose feeding flocks. Herons locate their food by sight and usually swallow it whole. Inland, rodents are often an important part of the great blue’s diet.
While the great blue feeds mostly on small fish it will also eat shrimp, crabs, aquatic insects, rodents and other small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and small birds.
Herons are most often seen near saltwater and freshwater habitats, including open coasts, marshes, riverbanks, and lakes and even backyard goldfish ponds, retention ponds and other landscape water features. They also forage in grasslands and agricultural fields.
Breeding birds gather in colonies or “heronries,” sometimes with other heron species, to build stick nests high off the ground on old growth trees.
In the South, alligators, snakes and raccoons congregate under heronries to feed on fallen chicks and each other. In treeless areas, great blues readily nest on the ground, in shrubbery, in the prickly arms of a cactus or on cliffs.
The heron’s call, a harsh croak or honk, is most vocal during the breeding season or when disturbed. They also snap their bills loudly to attract a mate or to defend a nest. Bill clappering, the rapid chattering of the tips of the bill, is common between mated pairs.
In past times, fishermen believed herons wiggled their toes to imitate worms and attract fish and that their feet produced oil that lured prey. There was also a widely held belief great blues could pluck down from their breast and scatter it on the water to create an iridescent lure. None of these stories is true. The heron’s success as a fisherman is due to sharp eyesight, speed and patience.
Herons are symbols of good luck and patience in many Native American tribes especially in the Pacific Northwest but they are also seen as restless, solitary and vain. Seeing a great blue was an omen of a successful fishing trip; not surprising since they are skilled at locating fish.
In Greece, herons were sacred to the sea-god Poseidon and an emblem of Atlantis, the lost island paradise.
In many cultures, herons are said to be enemies of eagles and friends of crows. In Japan and China, a heron and a crow may be pictured together as a symbol of the yin-yang. Because of the long "nosy" beak, a heron is sometimes a symbol of curiosity, nosiness, and busybodies.
Like the crane, the heron's habit of standing on one leg earns it a reputation for contemplation, vigilance, divine or occult wisdom, and inner quietness in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and some Asian cultures. Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, employed a heron as one of her divine messengers. Native American legends tell of wise men who, having died, visited the earth in the bodies of herons.
Herons have Christian symbolism too. During medieval times, herons were thought to fly above the clouds to avoid rain. This supposed habit led them to become symbols of the righteous who avoided the storms of this world by placing their hopes and treasures in heaven. Early Christians believed herons shed tears of blood under stress, making them an emblem of Christ's agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Since they consume snakes and frogs, considered minions of the devil, herons were also symbolic of the battle of good against evil.