What Do Herons Eat: Complete List of What a Heron Eats


Herons are water loving birds known for their elegant and almost prehistoric silhouette. 

Today we will take an in-depth look into the complete heron diet, including how the heron dines across the day and across the seasons such as winter and summer …and why! 

I’ll also give detailed information about everything a heron likes to eat! But before we get started, let’s first look at the quick takeaway answer. 

While fish provide the majority of a heron’s diet, herons also stalk everything from insects to small mammals, such as flies and rodents. Their adaptability and razor-like long beak ensure they enjoy a variety of amphibians, insects, crustaceans, mollusks, worms, birds, and the occasional reptile. 

Before we start looking at a comprehensive diet list of these elegant birds, so that we can understand a little more easily about the types of food they eat, it’s good to know they are classed as wading birds.

What herons eat

Herons are a meat eating predatory water bird that is a top carnivorous predator in its own habitat. They’re also exceptional and persistent hunters and can spend up to 90 percent of their active hours hunting for food.

Herons are skilled hunters

All herons including the gray and the great blue herons are excellent fishers. They can be found stealthily wading through shorelines of a lake, river, or streams, patiently waiting for their next meal.

As soon as a likely candidate approaches. The heron will stretch out their very long neck and stand motionless.

Then, with their blade-like bill, herons will strike at the optimum moment to deftly catch their prey once the moment is right.

Herons diet consists mainly of fish 

As a heron’s habitat is mainly near water, it’s not surprising to discover that fish are the mainstay of his diet during the summer.

A heron can be found by any kind of waterway such as lakes, rivers, ponds, marshes and on the sea coast – and even in your backyard pond. He is well known for helping himself to an ornamental fish or two! 

heron stalks a riverbank

Types of fish a heron eats

The types of fish a heron will eat include the following:

  • Goldfish 
  • Small carp 
  • Any type of ornamental fish 
  • Striped and standard perch 
  • Minnow 
  • Flounders 
  • Sticklebacks 
  • Gunnels
  • Sculpin
  • Perch
  • Top smelt

The type of fish a heron has access to does depend largely on its habitat. Here are some examples of where a heron’s diet may vary based on availability…

  • In Nova Scotia, it’s unsurprising to discover that herons have a diet primarily of flounders.
  • In British Columbia where sticklebacks, gunnels, sculpins and perch are commonly found, herons will most likely dine on them most frequently. 
  • California herons were found to live mostly on sculpin, bass, perch, flounder, and top smelt. Topsmelt is found in a wide range of habitats which depend on the time of year. It’s most commonly found in Sandy beaches, along with the shore kind, and in some forest habitats. 

Herons eat crustaceans 

Herons of all varieties are also partial to a crustacean too and as an opportunist feeder, he will also supplement his diet with: 

  • Crayfish 
  • Prawns 
  • Crabs 
  • Hermit crabs 
  • Prawns 
  • Lobster 

Herons eat birds and their eggs 

Although we can understand a heron is likely to help himself to a fish supper at any opportunity, it might surprise you to find out he will also eat small birds.

Birds that are more likely to be found in his menu are ones found in and around his usual watery habitat. 

  • Sand martins 
  • Sanderlings 
  • Plovers
  • Sandpipers 
  • Baby and small gulls,
  • Woodcock 
  • Small water birds

Herons eat birds eggs

Herons will seek to locate and eat birds eggs. And size is not normally an issue. A heron can swallow eggs whole from all bird species its likely to come in contact with.

So as ducks are a popular visitor to the areas where herons hunt, you might be wondering whether herons eat ducks 

Let’s discover more… 

Herons eat ducks 

Ducks play an essential role in the diet of many types of heron. He can be found eating baby ducks from the beginning of the spring months, right through to the end of summer.

This coincides with the duck breeding season. Ducks form an important part of a heron’s varied and complex dietary needs.

Herons eat mammals 

A heron will supplement his diet with any kind of small mammal and have even been known to attack and eat large rats.

Along with the usual water dwelling mammals, he will eat a variety of mammals who share his habitat. These can include: 

  • Frogs 
  • Toads
  • Water rats 
  • Water voles
  • Field mice
  • Rats
  • Rabbits 
  • Squirrels 

Herons do not generally eat larger fowl such as chickens and larger ducks. Size is an issue, meaning herons cannot swallow the prey whole and instead would need to pluck feathers in order to tear up the carcass. Herons do not get involved in plucking feathers when there is easier prey available.

Let’s take a look at two of our more popular herons and find out a little more about what they eat. 

Blue herons diet

A blue heron along with its cousins the gray and large blue herons are built for hunting around shallow, slow moving water.

This habitat allows them to successfully hunt for prey likely to be living in such watery areas with their razor sharp beak and statue-like hunting style. 

Blue herons will also eat ducks. In fact, much like gray herons, a duckling up to a few weeks old can be devoured by a blue heron.

Great blue herons 

Here’s some facts and further diet information on the great blue herons:-

  • The great blue heron is very closely related to its less colourful cousin the grey heron. It’s for this reason their diets are very similar. 
  • Great blue herons will eat almost anything within striking distance of their razor sharp long beak.
  • While fish makes up the majority of their diet, anything from insects and even small mammals can be on the Great Blue Heron’s daily menu.
  • Great blue herons will hunt both during the day and the night. They have specially adapted eyes which help them to see in the dark.
  • The gray heron is a smaller bird weighing between 2.25 lb – 4.59 lb (1.02–2.08 kg) as opposed to the mighty great blue who interestingly can weigh less than his less tall relative at (4.01 lb – 7.95 lb (1.82–3.6 kg).
  • Great blue herons have specialized feathers on their chest that will grow continuously and fray into a powder.  This powder can be used to help clean off fish slime which makes up a large proportion of this majestic bird’s diet.

What herons eat in winter

Many herons return repeatedly to specific feeding sites, with the better ones defended against other herons

In winter, herons continue their diet of a variety of aquatic food, but most larger fish move to deeper waters as the temperature drops so herons broaden their intake to include a wider range of prey. At these times, occasionally a heron will make a meal of a rabbit, mouse, squirrel, or water vole.

They often also add to the protein intake by foraging for worms in flooded fields. 

Herons are expert ice fishermen 

Many herons are skilled ice fishermen. Which can most definitely be said of the large blue heron. 

He will sit waiting patiently by an ice hole for many hours before he plunges his razor sharp bill into the icy water after a fish.

Herons steal other hunters prey

Some anecdotal evidence also suggests that herons will employ its own food catcher in the form of diving ducks! As the duck retrieves the fish, the heron will immediately swoop down to intimidate the duck and steal its supper.

Do herons eat at night?

Most herons do not hunt at night, an exception is the night heron, of which there are a few species. Might herons hunt at night and rest during the day. Like most herons, they remain still until an opportune moment appears to strike their prey. Night herons feed on the same food as other herons.

Let’s take a look at a couple of other examples of what herons eat.

Do herons eat frogs?

Herons will eat frogs, toads, newts, water snakes, and even slightly larger tadpoles. They will also eat other water residents such as eels, turtles and salamanders. A heron is unlikely to eat frogspawn as they usually aim for single bodied animal targets.

Popular articles…

Here’s a selection of other popular and related articles to expand your learning further…

Do birds eat fish and Do ducks eat fish

What do foxes Eat, or What eats a fox

What do wolves eat, or What eats a wolf

What do moose eat, or The difference between an elk and a moose

What eats a bear, or What do Hyenas eat

What do skunks eat

Learning resources

To finish

I hope this has provided you with a deeper insight into the feeding habits and diet of herons. Don’t forget to check out my other articles.

Michael

A Certified Ecologist and an Entomologist, Michael has been interested in all aspects of Nature for many years. It's only now he's decided, along with his partner Fran, to begin documenting what he knows.

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