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Photo: Great Blue Heron
Great blue herons nest high in trees in colonies along the Columbia River.

Graphic: What About Great Blue Herons?

Graphic: Background Information...

Have you ever been traveling near a marsh-like area and thought you had just seen a stork? Well, it probably was not a stork, but the distinctive looking bird with long legs and extremely long neck you just saw likely was a great blue heron. In the Tri-Cities, a popular spot to view great blue herons is along Highway 240 between Kennewick and Richland in the Yakima Delta. You can see them there in early summer and late fall when river levels are lowest. The herons hunt in marshes and still or slow-moving water for fish, frogs, and other creatures. You can identify them when they fly by the way their necks bend in an "S" shape and heads remain supported between the shoulders. Their long legs trail behind.

What do great blue herons look like?
Great blue herons belong to the family Ardeidae, the order Ciconiformes. They are one of 22 species that breed in the Americas. Great blue herons are the best known of all the species and the most distinctive because of their size. They are often misidentified as sandhill cranes.

These herons have elongated necks, legs, and bills. They are about 46 inches tall and have a wingspan of about 6 feet. They are bluish gray in color and have a black belly and white head with a black stripe along the sides of the crown. Their legs and feet are blackish. Great blue herons have dull, yellowish color bills that can stretch to 6 or more inches long. The bill has a sharp edge and is pointed much like a raptor's bill.

Graphic: Shrub-Steppe Ecology Series Logo

Graphic: Notes...
"Science is constructed of facts as a house is of stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house." Henri Poincare

Keep in mind this fact sheet is intended to be used only as background information to support your effort to encourage inquiry-based science, which parallels the way scientists uncover knowledge and solve problems.

Drawing: Trees with nests and nests with eggs

Graphic: Suggested Activities...

Play the "Get to Know Your Local Birds" game. First, gather descriptions of some common species and describe aloud each bird one body part at a time. Have other players try to guess what bird you are describing. You can use audio recordings of some common bird songs as part of the game, too. Once the other players catch on to the idea that all the "things" you are describing are common birds, show a video or slide show of the birds of your area.

Place a bird feeder outside your window. Establish a routine for observing the visitors to your feeder–depending on the time you have this might be once a day at breakfast or lunch or every Saturday morning. Observe and identify the birds that visit the feeder. Record in a journal the date, weather, species, and number. Add drawings or pictures of the birds in your journal.

Questions a scientist might ask: Do different species of birds visit the feeder in different seasons? Which birds are migrants? Where do the migrants go during other seasons? Over the years have the numbers of a certain species changed? What might cause this change? Note: Remember to keep the feeder filled. Why is this important? Place the feeder in an area protected from wind and near trees and bushes to which the birds can escape. Clean the feeder with soap and water two or three times a year.

Plan a trip to a wetland or riparian area to look for great blue herons. Go early in the morning for maximum viewing. Be sure to take a journal, binoculars, a bird identification book, and if you can a video camera or tape recorder. Be very quiet and patient, and hopefully, you will get to witness a heron as it hunts along the shore for frogs and fish.

Talk to a local bird expert and find out if a heron rookery exists close to your community. In the Tri-Cities area, biologists have located rookeries along the Columbia River at Vernita, the White Bluffs, and along the Wahluke Slope. Find out when the best time would be to visit so you do not disturb the nesting parents and young.

Check with your local Audubon Society to arrange for a speaker to come and talk to your group about local birds.

Great Blue Heron

a painted hunter upon a painted pond: the brush-stroked eye, the slash of bill, the pencil-line of legs.
the head tilts back on the stilt of neck. The spiked fish slides down the throat. One swallow—then all is still.
the head strikes, spiking the water, splitting it apart with a splash and an odd wiggle.
a painted hunter upon a painted pond.

—Jane Yolen

Graphic: Other Resources...

  1. Birdwatch, 1990. Jane Yolen, Penguin Putnam, New York.
  2. Eyewitness–Birds, 2000. David Burnie, Dk Publishing, Los Angeles.
  3. Henry the Hesitant Heron, 1987. Jacquelyn Kupinsky, Woodbury Press, Litchfield, Maine.
  4. Stokes Field Guide to Birds, 1996. Donald Stokes and L. Stokes, Little Brown and Company, New York.
  5. The Amateur Zoologist, 1994. Mary Dykstra, Franklin Watts, New York.
  6. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, 1992. Miklos Udvardy and J. Farrand, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
  7. The Great Blue Heron, 2000. Hayward Allen, Creative Publishing International, Hopkins, Minnesota.
  8. The Saving of Valiant Blue Herons, 1997. John Harms, Frederick Press, Palm Beach, Florida.

Graphic: Web Sites...

  1. USGS Great Blue Heron -
  2. Herons, Egrets and Bitterns -
  3. Enchanted Learning -
  4. Patuxent—Migratory Bird Research -
  5. Herons -
  6. Photos of Great Blue Herons -

Graphic: Acknowledgments...

Initial development and printing was funded by the Partnership for Arid Land Stewardship (PALS). Written by: Tami Lancaster, Christ the King School, and Karen Wieda, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Series Editor: Georganne O'Connor; Design: WinSome Design.

Graphic: Shrub-Steppe Ecology Series


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