The great blue heron, Ardea herodias, could be America's Bird. Of course that distinction officially belongs to the bald eagle. But the eagle has a much more limited range across the United States, while the great blue touches every one of the lower 48, plus Alaska.
From Washington to Florida, California to Maine, the great blue is either a year-round resident or a seasonal visitor. Few other native American birds have such a wide distribution. In most of the country, including Florida, it's a permanent fixture regardless of the season, although some migrating great blues find there way here in the fall. It's also found throughout Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and into Colombia and Venezuela.
And it is a majestic sight in flight or on the ground stalking prey in the watery habitats of the continent. The great blue heron is arguably the largest bird commonly found in most of South Florida. It has a body length reaching four-and-a-half feet and a wingspan that approaches six-and-a-half feet. Only the sandhill crane is bigger, but the sandhill population isn't nearly as large and it is not seen much south of central Palm Beach County. The magnificent frigate bird has a larger wingspan but it's most likely to be seen over the ocean.
Great blues will eat just about anything that moves — fish, small mammals and reptiles, including snakes, and other birds. Even smaller alligators fear this heron (adult gators, however, see them as tasty treats). They will forage through the shallows or stand perfectly still, neck coiled, waiting to grab or spear a meal with their long, sharp bill.
Great blues are mostly bluish-gray, with a white head and a dark blue patch that goes around the head from one eye to the other, creating sort of a male pattern baldness look. They also have dark blue patches on their shoulders.
In the southern reaches of South Florida, there are two variants of the great blue heron. One is all white and slightly larger, and is known as the great white heron, A. herodias occidentalis. And where the ranges of the great blue and the great white overlap, there is a bird called Wurdemann's heron that has the head and neck of the great white and the body of a great blue. In the science world, it's known as A. herodias wurdemannii.
The name, by the way honors Gustavas Wurdemann, an employee of the U.S. Coast Survey stationed in Florida who researched Florida's natural world in his spare time. Wurdemann is credited with discovering his namesake bird during his stay here between 1837 and1849. Both the great white and Wurdemann's were considered separate species at one time but are now classified as subspecies of the great blue.
Both male and female great blues take part in nest building. Males gather sticks and presents them to their mates, who weave them together. Females will soften the interior by lining it with moss, grasses and leaves. The process can last a couple of days or a couple of weeks. Great blues are known to reuse a nest. The site itself can be in trees — the nests on this page are in pond apples — or on the ground. Great blues nest in colonies with other wading birds.
In any case, females will lay two to six eggs, which take about four weeks to incubate. It will be two to three months more before the young herons are flight capable. Both parents sit on the eggs and both feed the offspring. Great blues generally have one brood a year, but can have two in the south. Great blues are members of Ardeidae, the family of herons, egrets and bitterns.