Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias

Ross G. Vennesland and Robert W. Butler
Version: 1.0 — Published March 4, 2020
Text last updated April 28, 2011

Movements and Migration

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Migration Overview

Great Blue Herons have both non-migratory and migratory populations. Largely non-migratory in the Pacific Northwest (A. h. fannini), in s. Florida (the white A. h. occidentalis), and on the Galapagos Is. (A.h. cognata) (Butler 1997, Dickerman 2004). Over most of North America, however, this species exhibits a general movement away from the northern edge of its breeding range for winter, sometimes covering vast distances (Henny 1972). Outside of the Pacific Northwest, some individuals are recorded on Christmas Bird Counts in Canada each year (in areas that remain ice free), but many birds fly as far south as the Caribbean.

Timing and Routes of Migration

Some Great Blue Herons wander northward in summer to arctic Alaska, s. Yukon, s. Keewatin, n. Manitoba, n. Ontario and n. Quebec (Brock 1959, Godfrey 1986, Sinclair et al. 2003). Of 26 birds banded in s. Florida May 1938, 2 were recovered in S. Carolina, 1 in N. Carolina (Stevenson and Anderson 1994).

Southward migration from northern localities occurs from mid-September to late October, although early migrants are noted before this: e.g., as early as mid-August in Venezuela (perhaps s. USA breeders; Hilty 2003). Birds leave Alberta by early November and Ontario by early December (http://www.ebird.org). Spring migrants return in early February to Illinois, Wisconsin, and central Minnesota (Palmer 1962a); mid-March to Vermont (Laughlin and Kibbe 1985) and interior British Columbia (Butler et al. 1986); late March to Kentucky (Mengel 1965b), Iowa (Dinsmore et al. 1984), and Oklahoma (Sutton 1967b); March to early April to Nova Scotia (Tufts 1961, Palmer 1962a); early April to Ontario (Devitt 1967), and Alberta (Vermeer 1969d); and April to early May to the Canadian Prairies and Maritimes (Palmer 1962a).

In Venezuela (Hilty 2003), numbers increase February and March, prior to northward migration, with 25+ seen daily at a few coastal locations. With data above, suggests broad latitude in migration schedules. More information on arrival and departure dates is needed to better establish migration and dispersion chronology.

Recoveries of U.S. and Canadian Great Blue Herons banded as nestlings east of the Rockies and recovered before their first birthday suggest many winter along Caribbean shores (Byrd 1978c). Christmas Bird Count data show large numbers winter in the southeast U.S. (see Figure 5). Pacific coast populations are nonmigratory (Byrd 1978c, Gill and Mewaldt 1979), but some post-breeding dispersal occurs (Pratt 1970, Butler 1991). Accidental occurrences have been documented in Newfoundland, Greenland, Hawaii and the Azores (Hancock and Kushlan 1984).

Migratory Behavior

Little information is available. Great Blue Herons migrate alone or in groups of 3 to 12, occasionally up to 100, day and night (Palmer 1962a).

Control and Physiology of Migration

No information is available.

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Great Blue Heron

Ardea herodias


This map animates weekly estimated relative abundance, defined as the expected count on an eBird Traveling Count starting at the optimal time of day with the optimal search duration and distance that maximizes detection of that species in a region on the specified date.  Learn more

Relative abundance
Week of the year

Recommended Citation

Vennesland, R. G. and R. W. Butler (2020). Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.grbher3.01