Lee Richardson Zoo

Little Blue Heron

Order: Ciconiiformes - herons, hamerkop, storks, shoebill, ibises, spoonbills

Family: Ardeidae - herons

Scientific Name: Hydranassa caerulea


Description The little blue heron is a medium-sized wading bird with a long beak, neck, and legs.  It is 24 inches tall with a wingspan of approximately 40 inches.  The body is slaty blue with maroon on the head and neck.  During the breeding season, it grows long plumes on the crown, neck, and back.  The beak is pale blue with a black tip, and appears slightly curved.  Juveniles are mostly white, with gray tips on the primaries and pale greenish legs.  They fly with the neck tucked in near the body, and the feet stretched out past the tail.

Home Range:   Southern and eastern coasts of the United States; Mexico, West Indies, Central America, and most of northern South America


Habitat Type:   Freshwater wetlands such as lakes and marshes; sometimes in mangroves or other brackish wetland habitats


Reproduction:   Little blue herons breed in the spring.  They join mixed colonies of other Ciconiiformes, usually choosing nest sites around the edges of the group.  They nest in trees, over water or as close to it as possible.  The nest is a simple platform of sticks or reeds, sometimes so thin that the eggs can be seen from below.  The eggs are pale blue-green.  Females usually lay 4-5 eggs in a clutch, and incubate for 22-24 days.  The chicks hatch with their eyes closed, and are covered with pale gray down.  They are fed regurgitated food.  They fledge after approximately 30 days, and are fed by their parents until they are about 50 days old. 


Diet in the Wild:   Mainly crabs, crayfish, and aquatic insects;  also other insects, spiders, small fish, frogs, lizards, snakes, or turtles


Diet in the Zoo:   Bird of Prey diet


General Information:   Like other herons, little blue herons are specialized for capturing live prey.  The sixth vertebra in the neck is elongated, giving the neck a kinked S-shape that can be extended quickly, functioning as a harpoon during prey capture.  Little blue herons feed in the early mornings and late afternoons.  They feed in loose flocks or at the edges of mixed flocks, walking slowly in shallow water in search of prey.  In Florida, they sometimes follow behind feeding manatees, catching the prey that the manatees disturb.  They usually eat prey whole.  They can digest everything except insects’ chitinous exoskeletons, and the fur and feathers of larger animals.  These are expelled as pellets. 
Little blue herons are usually found in flocks of 15-20 birds.  They can make various hoarse squawks, but they are usually silent.  They breed farther inland than many herons.  After the breeding season, many birds (especially juveniles) disperse to the north, sometimes reaching Canada and even Greenland before returning to their breeding grounds.  These post-breeding trips allow the birds to find new food sources and sometimes colonize new locations.


Conservation Status:   Little blue herons are not globally threatened.  They are common in the United States.


Predators:   Mainly birds of prey, and also various mammals and reptiles.  Crows and vultures take the herons’ eggs.


Related Artifacts:   Great blue heron skull



A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica.  1989.  F.G. Stiles and A.F. Skutch.  Comstock, Ithaca, NY.  pp. 84-85.

A Guide to the Birds of Panama.  1989.  R.S. Ridgely and J.A. Gwynne.  Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.  p. 70.

Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 1.  1992.  J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, and J. Sargatal.  Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.  pp. 376-403, 411.

Life Histories of North American Marsh Birds.  1963.  A.C. Bent.  Dover, NY.  pp. 177-184.

The Sibley Guide to Birds.  2000.  D.A. Sibley.  Alfred A. Knopf, NY.  p. 63.