Some birds are solitary creatures, keeping their food sources to themselves, while others take advantage of the benefits of living in a group.
Great Blue Herons have the best of both worlds, but are they solitary birds?
Great Blue Herons are solitary birds during the fall and winter but live in colonies during the spring and summer. This allows them to nest together during the breeding season when they have vulnerable young while allowing each bird to use their own feeding territory during the cold months.
When Great Blue Herons Are Solitary Birds
Great Blue Herons live by themselves throughout the fall and winter, a time when most birds form colonies.
Singular Great Blue Herons can be found alone on beaches and docks, in marshes, and on tree branches near water sources.
They defend their feeding territories alone, scaring away competition when necessary.
Great Blue Herons typically have access to plenty of food, which is one reason why they don’t need to share feeding territory with other herons.
However, they do sometimes need to negotiate shared feeding grounds in areas where a lot of prey is available.
Great Blue Herons survive on fish, amphibians, birds, and rodents, but in the winter, they mostly survive on a diet of voles.
Great Blue Herons benefit from living and hunting independently during the fall and winter because they rely on stealth to trap their prey.
When Great Blue Herons Live in Colonies
Great Blue Herons form colonies during the breeding season, which lasts from February to late July.
Nesting together during this time gives them an advantage against predators.
Together, they can watch out for each other’s nests and warn each other about animals that would steal their young.
Great Blue Heron colonies, called heronries, can be found in forests, on islands, and near mudflats.
They will sometimes build very small colonies and other times build very large ones, with colony sizes ranging from just a few nesting pairs to several hundred.
On average, a heronry contains about 60 nests.
How To Spot a Heronry
Heronries can be difficult to find but offer rewarding sights for the birdwatcher. If you want to find one, search near rivers and lakes.
Heron nests are made from sticks and are often very close to each other, situated either together in one tree or adjacent trees.
Heronries are constructed in late winter to early spring, and the best time to view them is during the spring or summer.
Any later than that, and the herons will have left their nests to pursue a solitary lifestyle.
If you spot a heronry, remember to keep a good distance to avoid spooking the birds or otherwise disturbing the colony.
See the following video, which shows what a heronry looks and sounds like:
Why Are Some Birds Solitary?
Many birds live solitary lives, preferring to maintain their own foraging or nesting territory rather than share it.
Often, birds that flock will only do so for some activities or seasons, living alone apart from foraging, for example.
Most take advantage of at least some solitary behavior.
Which Birds Are Solitary?
Birds of prey are usually solitary, both for breeding and nesting and for foraging.
They have few to no natural predators, so they don’t need to worry about helping each other watch for predators.
Birds that feed on vertebrates, like the Common Kestrel or the Great Blue Heron, often take advantage of solitary hunting and foraging techniques.
Birds that either nest or forage alone include:
- Steller’s Jays
Among these birds, there are exceptions when it comes to mated pairs.
These pairs tolerate each other’s presence at least through the mating season, and will sometimes tolerate their mate’s presence year-round.
Which Birds Live in Colonies?
Some birds prefer to live in colonies, making use of shared space and shared information.
They learn from each other about where food sources are and take on predators as a group.
These birds include the following:
- African weavers
- Brewer’s Blackbirds
- Eurasian Lesser Kestrel
- Bank Swallow
- Passenger Pigeon
Birds that live in colonies can protect the weakest of their members by allowing the stronger birds in the population to find and secure foraging territory.
However, collective foraging and collective nesting do not always go hand in hand.
Herons, for example, nest together without foraging together because they rely on stealth tactics to catch their prey.
As another example, ducks loaf together in colonies and feed together, but they nest separately so that they can more easily conceal themselves from predators.
Before their extinction, Passenger Pigeons relied on large colonies to protect their populations against predators.
When predators would swoop in and capture some pigeons, there would be enough left to breed because these colonies would include billions of birds.
Due to changes in the environment and the influence of human activity, Passenger Pigeon populations dropped below the point that they could effectively use this strategy.
Then the populations quickly dwindled to the point of extinction from that point onward.
How Solitary Birds Defend Their Territories
Solitary birds tend to be very territorial, and are quick to defend their breeding or foraging ground from competitors or predators.
These birds use numerous strategies to defend their territories.
The first and most common strategies are various bird songs sent as warning signals.
Next, birds attempt visual displays of defensiveness and will attempt to chase each other away from their territories.
Finally, birds resort to combat to defend their space, if necessary.
Some birds will defend their entire foraging range, while others will simply protect a small radius around their nest.
The size of a bird’s territorial range usually has to do with the richness of available resources.