Great white heron: characteristics, feeding, reproduction and more

The white heron ( Ardea Alba ) is a species of pelecaniform bird of the family Ardeidae. It is one of the herons that are distributed throughout the world , occupying most of all continents except Antarctica.

It is an aquatic bird of beautiful white plumage, large , very beautiful and slender figure , which reaches one meter in height. It always flies keeping a retracted position on its long neck. They are quite curious birds, besides being very intelligent, they are able to fly long distances without needing to stop.

If you want to know what is a white heron or grey heron and everything about this wonderful bird continue reading this article.

Characteristics of the white heron

This group of birds consists of very slender species, usually with bright colors and different sizes. Most of them visit wetlands of various types, always staying in shallow waters and on the banks of rivers, lakes and lagoons, although they may frequent other types of non-aquatic spaces.

They are usually very similar in terms of their long, sharp bill, their long legs with non-palmate toes, are extremely gregarious and therefore form large colonies. Whose family of birds has more than 60 species.

The white heron, like most of the members of the family to which it belongs, has certain characteristics that differentiate it from many others. It is a totally elegant bird with a slender posture and a singular neck, which is always erect and folded, giving it an “ese” shape.

At the same time its plumage is totally white, abundant and soft, from its back and chest come out the beautiful aigrettes, which are exhibited during the nuptial season, besides being the ones that almost caused the extinction of this bird.

The Grey Heron ( Casmerodius Albus ) and the Little Egret (Leucophoyxthula thula) which is smaller than the White Heron , Due to their beautiful plumage they were sold at exorbitant prices, this meant a great threat to these birds, since it takes between 800 to 900 herons to obtain 1 kilogram of fine feathers .

The white heron feathers were also sold in almost every continent for the creation of pillows and hats, among others. As a result, these birds are rapidly disappearing, and due to this situation, their population has dwindled in many places where large flocks could be found.

The white heron is a cosmopolitan group, formed by more than species worldwide, of which 15 were established in the territory of the Argentine Republic in 2003. This large family of birds is formed by birds of large and medium size, beautiful and slender body, in almost all species, which are known by different names, such as herons, egrets, egrets, hocoes, chiflones and mirasoles.

They are birds totally linked to the aquatic environment, however many other species that are established in the same area, are characterized by not swimming or diving, they are only in charge of prowling shallow waters, whose task is easy to perform due to their long legs, They have a curious peculiarity, since they have a kind of comb in the middle toe, which they use to adjust their plumage and clean themselves using special feathers, which tend to fall apart and turn into a powder, which is rubbed on their other feathers.


It is a large bird, with white plumage that can reach up to 1 meter in height once fully mature. It could be included in the group of the most extravagant birds of the aquatic environment.Due to its size, this great egret is grouped within the genus Ardea, very similar to Ardea purpurea or Purple Heron, also to Ardea cinerea or Grey Heron, being called Ardea alba.


The length of the white heron from bill to tail ranges from 80 to 104 centimeters, with a wingspan between 131 and 170 centimeters. It is an unmistakable bird, much larger in appearance than all other white herons.


The weight is between 700 and 1500 grams, being its average around one kilogram. It is slightly smaller than the blue heron and the grey heron. It is a large specimen that can perform extraordinary flights even at its maximum weight. Generally, males are always larger than females, however, the genders are similar in appearance.


The color of its plumage is white all year round, except for some facial areas. It has a thin black line, which runs below the eyes and extends from the beak until it reaches a little behind the eyes.

This thin line is one of the characteristics that identifies the white heron from all other white heron species, as it is the only one that possesses this black line.

As for its breeding plumage, it shows fine and long ornamental feathers on its back, which are often ruffled. Females and males are identical in appearance, and the youngest resemble the adults due to their non-reproductive plumage.

The herons’ feathers, which were their greatest risk and danger of extinction, were widely used to adorn luxury hats in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a very hard time for the herons.


Its beak is thin, long, straight and pointed, yellowish in color. Apart from its size, the great egret differs from other white egrets by having a yellow bill, even if it becomes darker. It also differs from the great egret by its yellow caruncle, which extends further back from the eye, whereas in the great egret it ends just at the eye.

In the subspecies of the Americas (Ardea alba egretta) usually the predominant color of the bill is yellow, the tip becomes dark. The yellow color changes from reddish to orange, a fact that only occurs during the breeding season.

During the breeding season it is feasible that from the middle of the beak to the head it becomes reddish, while from the middle to the tip it is dark. This occurs in the subspecies of Europe, North Africa and West Asia (Ardea alba alba alba)


Its legs are long, slender and black with black toes, during breeding the legs usually become lighter. The middle toe has something very similar to a comb, which is used to comb and groom their feathers.

In the subspecies of Africa south of the Sahara (Ardea alba melanorhynchos) and in the species of the Americas they are dark. In the European species they are dark but with the difference of the amount of yellow. In East Asia and Australia (Ardea alba modesta) they are also dark with different amounts of yellow except in the mating season when they turn reddish.


It usually flies slowly with its neck retracted. This is a characteristic of all herons, unlike cranes, storks , and spoonbills, which keep their necks well extended during flight. However, the great egret usually walks with its neck stretched out.

Once the white egret stabilizes its flight, it initiates peculiar movements, flapping its wings slowly and gently.Keeping the neck curved backwards, protruding the beak and head, leaving the legs extended backwards, which surpass the tail.

It is documented from sea level up to 1500 meters elevation, although it has been seen at higher elevations, reaching almost 4100 meters.

The tail is short and the wings are long and broad, anisodactyl, which are used for perching.


Generally is a silent bird , but still emits squawks, loud and shrill, unlike the others does so when disturbed, as well as in their breeding colonies makes squawks and cries a little higher pitched.

In some cases, it is capable of demonstrating aggression, emitting a growl that many authors describe as a squawk.


During mating they make loud cries, it is a way to make calls to try to find a mate. Males are a little louder than females, because they will also be warning other males, the defense of the area, in the same way they try to attract females. They usually become aggressive when they are looking for a mate, or when they are protecting their young and eggs.

Great white herons show great affinity to water , whether salty, fresh or brackish. For the most part, they spend most of their time near or in water; on the banks of rivers, in marshes, lakes, in flooded crop fields on the sea shore, or in any other habitat where they find water.

Usually is seen solitary or in considerable groups . It is possible to find it fishing near other waterfowl. It usually roosts in congregations that can number in the hundreds.

The following species are very gregarious: the white heron ( Egretta Alba ), the cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis), the white egret (Egretta thula). On the other hand, the following are very solitary: the great grosbeaks (Botaurus pinnatus), the dusky heron (Tigrisoma fasciata), the little egret (Ixobrychus exilis), the common egret (Ixobrychus exilis), the black heron (Ardea cocoi) and the red-crowned heron (Tigrisoma lineatum).

There are several species which are adopting an almost intermediate attitude between the above, they are sometimes seen in small groups and almost always solitary, among them we have, the spoonbill heron (Cochlearis cochlearis) and the witch heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), in the case of the chiffchaff (Syrigma sibilatrix), they walk alone or with their partner.

The blue heron (Butorides striatus), the blue heron (Egretta caerulea), and the grey heron (Pilherodius pileatus) group together when nesting, as well as the grey heron (Pilherodius pileatus). When nesting, they form colonies with other heron species, as well as other birds. They are mostly diurnal and spend most of their time searching for food, which is almost always abundant in the wetlands.


The great egret is classified in the genus Ardea, belonging to the heron family, Ardeidae, which in turn is classified in the order Pelecaniformes, as are four other waterfowl families: Threskiornithidae (ibis and spoonbills), Scopidae (hammerheads), Pelecanidae (pelicans) and Balaenicipitidae (shoebills).

This white bird was scientifically described in 1758 by Charles Linnaeus in his work Systema naturae, in its tenth edition, with the same scientific name of the heron it currently carries, Ardea alba, which means white heron. It was then taken with other egrets to the genus Egretta, in 1817 by the English naturalist Thomas Ignatius Maris Forster.

Then in 1842 another genus Casmerodius was proposed by Constantin Wilhelm Lambert Gloger to place the great egret due to its anatomical differences and size, with respect to the other members of Egretta. After several genetic analyses, they decided to bring it back to the genus Ardea, where it was previously placed by Linnaeus.

Four subspecies of white heron are recognized: Ardea alba egretta, which is widespread in America from Canada to Argentina; Ardea alba modesta, which is found in eastern Asia. Ardea alba melanorhynchos, found in sub-Saharan Africa. Ardea alba alba the nominal subspecies which occupies Europe, western Asia and northern Africa.

There are other types of herons similar to this one, such as the black-crowned heron or reddish heron, heron, heron ardea herodias or blue heron, among others.

Habitat and distribution

This bird usually lives in areas with warm climates. They are found in tropical locations around the world, which it finds by living throughout the sunbelt. One of the homes of the white heron are the tropical rainforests of South America. They are migratory birds, which move to warmer places in the winter months. They usually inhabit near wetlands, freshwater and saltwater.

The great egret is a super abundant bird species, which has been spreading in all continents, in tropical and temperate regions in all types of wetlands. It is established in North America, expanding throughout the Sun Belt of the United States.

If you have wondered where herons live , its range reaches as far as Canada. It also formalizes its stay throughout the temperate zones of Eurasia, it is partially migratory, since the populations of the temperate sites of the northern hemisphere go to the south to spend the winter. However, the populations that inhabit the tropical and subtropical regions of America, Oceania, Asia and Africa are sedentary.


Nests in colonies of various heron species. When it is time to mate, the white heron will nest in the nearest trees creating colonies. Once they have mated, after several weeks the young chick will be present. Females may deposit up to four eggs in their nest.

Both parents must care for their young in the nest, and there is almost always a rivalry between the older chick against the younger and weaker ones at the time of hatching. The weaker ones can be expelled from the nest and will die. It is a way of knowing who will be the strongest. The average life span of the white heron in the wild is 15 years.

During the nuptial moment, they flaunt a plume of feathers on their head, alternating with more showy and elegant feathers, which they display to make attractive demonstrations at their nest and to other male rivals in the different nesting colonies. Likewise, the skin between the beak and the eyes turns reddish.

Breeding usually occurs on different dates, depending on the latitude. For example, in the United States, nesting begins in March, since April and May are the months indicated for laying. On the other hand, in Central America, the breeding period occurs in the summer, while south of the equator is from October to January.


The nest is built on all types of vegetation, either tall grass at the edge of ponds, trees and mangroves, at a height of between 3 and 12 meters. The clutch of this bird is a clutch of six pale blue-green or light blue eggs. Incubation takes about 25 days and is carried out by both parents.

First breeding usually occurs at 2 to 3 years of age. It can nest in isolated pairs, most often in colonies, almost always mixed with other waders and American wigeons, white herons tend to nest in high places, forming mixed colonies.

It is usually the male that selects the nesting area. The first thing he does is to expel the other birds, and then he begins to court the females. Among the courtship displays, the male emits sounds and performs circular flights while stretching his neck and holding his beak upwards.

Egg laying

The white heron lays 1 to 6 eggs from May to June, which are incubated for 25 to 26 days.

Some of these eggs measure 43 by 32 millimeters and weigh approximately 17 grams. They are incubated by both parents for 20 to 24 days, after which time the chick is ready to hatch.

The first chick will logically be the healthiest and strongest, but it is also the one that quickly learns to feed itself and will soon become more aggressive with the other chicks. For this reason, there is a difference in the growth of the chicks, the first of which will become stronger and heavier in a short time.

About three weeks after hatching, the hatchlings leave the nest, and two weeks after hatching, they begin to take short flights to forage for food on their own in the sixth week after hatching.

In any case, it is not known exactly what is the stable age of sexual maturity of the little white heron, but it may be that the young are in the best conditions to reproduce at one year of age. Under other circumstances, however, they do so in the second spring.


The chicks of the white heron, present a series of characteristics, they have beak and legs of color between green and yellow, the tip of the maxillary in its superior part is of dark color, the iris is of yellow color, they have a white down very scarce and elongated, dorsally abundant, the throat and ventral of the neck is implumes

In any case the parents are always attentive to their young, they feed their chicks by regurgitation.The hatchling begins to climb out of the nest at 3 weeks of age, and at that age is already able to take a short flight.

Conservation and threats

Currently the white heron is in full protection and is increasing its population, thanks to numerous laws of conservation and protection of wildlife have come to exceed the growth rate of these birds in their natural habitat. They were not always protected were killed for their large feathers, in fact, its population was endangered.

During the last 100 years, they have been increasing in numbers while their gene pool has been diversifying. Several captive breeding programs have been carried out, which have helped to maintain a high genetic lineage of the white heron.

At the end of the 19th century, North America experienced one of the worst moments for this heron species, as it was persecuted and killed by the most dangerous predators on the planet, such as man. The herons were sacrificed for the simple fact of removing their feathers, to commercialize them, to make pillows, decorate hats, among other purposes.

The great egret in flight was chosen as a symbol of the National Audubon Society in 1953 due to the publicity carried out in various campaigns to prevent the killing of herons to obtain their feathers. This symbolic fact had its greatest impact on the recovery, protection and conservation of the white heron.

However, in some parts of the southern United States their numbers have been declining due to loss of habitat, due to degradation of wetlands such as drainage, increased salinity due to overexploitation of aquifers, grazing, thinning, invasion of exotic plants. Even so, this species is normally adapted to humanized habitat.

Today the outlook is positive for these birds, which have obtained legal protection during the last century and their numbers have been increasing considerably.

In recent decades, breeding areas have gradually expanded northward, while there are several observations of declining populations in the south. This white, majestic, calm-water-dwelling bird, established in the south, with a northward distribution on summer days, was nearly extinct in the United States, when they were persecuted and killed in flocks.

Finally the white heron is back, due to an extraordinary group of ecologists and current conservation and species protection laws. All this made white herons to be present in almost all the continent. This bird represents the symbol of the National Audubon Society.

Great white heron and man

This bird was extremely persecuted by feather hunters in the early 19th century until the end of the 20th century. These hunters killed hundreds of thousands of herons just to obtain their feathers for trade, which were used to decorate ladies’ hats.

In the 1950s, this species began to recover almost completely, even though its numbers continue to decrease due to the destruction of its habitat and the indiscriminate use of pesticides for agriculture. However, thanks to certain conservation measures, the population of this species has recovered and today it is not considered an endangered animal.

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