Ardea cinerea (Linnaeus, 1758)
Family: Pelecaniformes > Ardeidae
The Grey Heron is a distinctive species with grey, black, and white plumage. It is often seen along rivers or lake margins, or standing in flooded fields.
In flight their large size, impressive wingspan, long legs, and folded neck give them an unmistakable silhouette. Largely silent away from colonies, flight is sometimes accompanied by a harsh ‘kraank’ call.
Grey Herons gather to nest in treetop sites called heronries, some of which have been occupied for many decades. These have been monitored in the UK since 1928 through the Heronries Census. Overall the UK's breeding population has increased, with numbers peaking in the early 2000, but with some more recent declines.
Select a topic for more facts and statistics about the Grey Heron
Grey Heron identification is usually straightforward. The following article may help when identifying Grey Heron.
25 years ago the sighting of any White Heron in the UK would have been greeted with excitement. While Little Egret is now relatively common, it can sometimes be confused at distance with a much rarer visitor - Great White Egret. This video also helps separate GW Egret from 'white' or leucistic Grey Herons.
Listen to example recordings of the main vocalisations of Grey Heron, provided by xeno-canto contributors.
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Status and Trends
Population size and trends and patterns of distribution based on BTO surveys and atlases with data collected by BTO volunteers.
This species can be found on the following statutory and conservation listings and schedules.
The BTO Heronries Census, which has monitored Grey Herons since 1928, shows the species to have been more abundant in the early 2000s than at any time in the last 90 years. In the full survey of UK heronries, carried out in 2003 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Heronries Census, a record total of more than 10,441 Grey Heron nests were counted, around 75% of the estimated total population for that year. In the most recent full survey in 2018, a higher number of sites were visited than in 2003 but fewer nests were counted, reflecting a subsequent downturn.
Wintering numbers, which include some Scandinavian breeders, fell between 2006/07 and 2012/13, but have since been broadly stable, mirroring the heronries census trend (WeBS: Frost et al. 2020). Numbers have increased across Europe since 1980 (PECBMS: PECBMS 2020a>).
|UK breeding population
|No population change in UK (1929–2020)
|UK winter population
|+18% increase (1995/96 to 2020/21)
Grey Herons are widely distributed across Britain & Ireland except for the most mountainous areas.
Occupied 10-km squares in UK
|No. occupied in breeding season
|% occupied in breeding season
|No. occupied in winter
|% occupied in winter
European Distribution Map
Breeding Season Habitats
|Most frequent in
|Also common in
Relative frequency by habitat
Some distribution gains may be attributed to improved coverage, whilst others may relate to true population increases.
Change in occupied 10-km squares in the UK
|% change in range in breeding season (1968–72 to 2008–11)
|% change in range in winter (1981–84 to 2007–11)
Information about movement and migration based on online bird portals (e.g. BirdTrack), Ringing schemes and tracking studies.
Lifecycle and body size information about Grey Heron, including statistics on nesting, eggs and lifespan based on BTO ringing and nest recording data.
View number ringed each year in the Online Ringing Report
|Maximum Age from Ringing
|23 years 9 months 2 days (set in 2003)
|5 years with breeding typically at 2 year
|0.26 (to age 2)
|2-letter: H. | 5-letter code: GREHE | Euring: 1220
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Interpretation and scientific publications about Grey Heron from BTO scientists.
Causes of change
There has been no change in the number of fledglings per breeding attempt, hence the population increases most likely relate to increased survival of adults and/or immature birds. The ecological reasons behind these changes are unclear.
Further information on causes of change
The effects of harsh winters, which induce severe mortality in this species (Besbeas et al. 2002), are clearly visible in the long-term trend. The general increase that underlies these fluctuations may stem from reduced persecution, improvements in water quality, the provision of new habitat as new lakes and gravel pits mature, and increased feeding opportunities at freshwater fisheries (Gibbons et al. 1993, Marchant et al. 2004). The strong downturn between 2005 and 2013 is, as yet, unexplained, but could be linked to cold winter weather and spring gales. High rates of nest failure at the chick stage were noted in the late 1960s, but not subsequently. Clutch and brood sizes have fallen in the long term but the number of fledglings per breeding attempt has not changed.
Information about conservation actions
A reduction in the frequency of cold winters may have benefited this species, as well as improvements in water quality and the provision of new wetland habitats. Ongoing conservation action to help provide habitat for other wetland species is therefore also likely to help the Grey Heron. Heronries can sometimes be located some distance from wetland sites and hence actions to ensure that key sites are protected and to prevent disturbance may also be helpful, although there is no evidence currently to suggest any problems occur during the breeding season.
Conflicts with anglers and aquaculture may occur in future, particularly if numbers pick up again after the recent slight downturn. Therefore, policy decisions may need to be made to ensure Grey heron populations are protected whilst minimising conflict.
Links to more information from ConservationEvidence.com
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