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The great blue heron is the largest and most abundant species of heron in North America, and can be spotted throughout isolated coastal regions and major metropolitan centers alike. Its diminishing habitat has forced it to take up residence in neighborhood parks and urban riverbanks, making it both the darling of birdwatchers and the menace of backyard koi ponds. Although the great blue heron should not be hand-fed, an appropriate environment can attract it to your yard.
Great blue herons can be found across the entire continent of North America, ranging from western Alaska to the Galapagos Islands. Although less tied to aquatic habitats than other species, great blues are most commonly spotted wading in the shallow water at the edges of lakes, rivers or coastal waterways. They can also be found foraging in fields, forests or even city landfills. You will thus have a good chance of spotting one near your own neighborhood.
While the great blue heron is commonly found at the water’s edge, it rarely makes its nest there. In fact, a great blue heron’s nest is often located several miles from a water source. Instead, it prefers the shelter and safety high in the trees of heavily wooded areas far from human habitation but near a favorite foraging location. As the diet of the great blue heron is quite varied, its nesting and foraging territories can be nearly anywhere.
A great blue heron will eat almost anything it comes across, providing it is small enough to fit down its long, slender throat. Small rodents, insects, fish, frogs, snakes and even small birds are all on the menu. Although they prefer live prey, they are also known to scavenge through trash bins or garbage dumps in search of a meal. Ornithologist Robert W. Butler notes that occasionally a great blue heron may even become habituated to the presence of humans and beg for handouts, but cautions that most will temporarily abandon their nests in order to avoid human contact.
Although its non-selective diet has allowed it to flourish in a variety of habitats, the great blue heron’s favorite meal continues to be fish. Butler describes the heron as a “patient predator,” standing motionless in shallow water, waiting for a hapless fish to swim close enough for capture. Coiling its neck back and forth into its classic s-shape, the bird can spring its head into the water like a harpoon, snatching its prey from the water. During nesting season, a heron may catch a fish every two minutes to feed its chicks.
It is quite unlikely that a great blue heron will set up its nest in a neighborhood backyard. However, for those wishing to see the bird up close, a decorative pond stocked with small fish may prove irresistible for the heron. Given sufficient privacy, a heron may find just such a backyard environment an ideal foraging location, providing a quick and easy meal for the bird, and an excellent opportunity to witness this expert stalker in action.