Ardea cinerea (Grey heron)

Bloureier [Afrikaans]; Isikhwalimanzi , Ukhwalimanzi (terms also applied to Black-headed heron) [Xhosa]; uNokilonki (also applied to Black-headed heron) [Zulu]; Samunkoma (also applied to other long-neck egrets and herons) [Kwangali]; Kokolofitoe -putsoa [South Sotho]; Kklhutw [Tswana]; Blauwe reiger [Dutch]; Hron cendr [French]; Graureiher [German]; Gara-real [Portuguese]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora > Aves (birds) > Order: Ciconiiformes > Family: Ardeidae

Ardea cinerea (Grey heron) Ardea cinerea (Grey heron)
Grey heron, Rondevlei Bird Sanctuary, South Africa. [photo Duncan Robertson ] Grey heron juvenile, Rondevlei, South Africa. [photo Trevor Hardaker ]
Ardea cinerea (Grey heron) Ardea cinerea (Grey heron)
Grey heron, Free State Province, South Africa. [photo Gerhard Theron ] Grey heron. [photo Jeff Poklen ]

Distribution and habitat

Occurs across much of the Old World, from western Scandinavia, Britain and the Iberian Peninsula to sub-Saharan Africa. In southern Africa it is most abundant in Zimbabwe, northern and eastern Botswana and South Africa, while also occupying patches of Namibia and Mozambique. It generally favours shallow water bodies, such as estuaries, lagoons, rivers, lakes, the intertidal zone, marshes and dams.

Distribution of Grey heron in southern Africa, based on statistical smoothing of the records from first SA Bird Atlas Project ( Animal Demography unit, University of Cape Town; smoothing by Birgit Erni and Francesca Little). Colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common). See here for the latest distribution from the SABAP2.  

Movements and migrations

Migratory north of the equator, but resident in southern Africa, occasionally moving in response to changes in habitat.


It mainly eats fish, using three different hunting techniques: it can wait at one spot for prey to come within striking distance; it can walk carefully through shallow water before ambushing prey, or it just drops into the water from the air. Once it catches something, it manipulates the first to a head-first position before swallowing it, as seen in the photos below. The following food items have been recorded in its diet:

Ardea cinerea (Grey heron)
Grey heron swallowing large fish. [photo Callie de Wet ] Grey heron with caught fish. [photo Callie de Wet ]
  • Vertebrates
    • fish
      • Mugil (mullet)
      • Tilapia (tilapia)
      • Serranochromis (largemouths)
      • Clarias (catfish)
      • eels
    • amphibians
    • reptiles
    • small rodents
    • small birds
  • Invertebrates
    • molluscs
    • crustaceans
    • worms
    • insects


  • Monogamous and usually colonial, often breeding in mixed-species colonies, although it may also nest alone or in small groups. The male performs many different types of displays, including one in which it calls from a prominent perch before throwing its head upward and giving a loud yelp.
  • The nest (see image below) is mainly built by the female over the course of several days, consisting of a platform of large sticks with a central basin of reeds, lined with grass and other soft material. Sometimes, a new nest is built on top of an old one which transforms it into a massive structure. It is typically placed in a tree fork or bush, 1.5-2.0 metres above water in a reedbed, or rarely on a cliff ledge or on the ground of a small island.
Ardea cinerea (Grey heron)  
Grey heron at nest with chicks, West Coast National Park, South Africa. [photo Trevor Hardaker ]  
  • Egg-laying season is year-round, peaking from July-January.
  • It lays 1-4 eggs, which are incubated by both sexes for about 23-28 days.
  • The oldest chick is treated the best, as the younger siblings are often malnourished, in fact the youngest almost invariably dies before fledging. The chicks are brooded by both parents for roughly 18 days, and are still guarded 24/7 for another 11-12 days. They leave the nest at about 50 days old, becoming fully independent 10-20 days later.


Not threatened, in fact it has greatly benefited from the construction of artificial water bodies.


  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town. 



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