Differences Between Cranes & Herons


At a glance, cranes and herons may look alike. Most are big and grey. Both types of bird have long necks and a huge wingspan. The differences are not easy to spot, but are significant nonetheless. There are 15 known species of crane and 64 species of heron.

Scientific Family Names

  • Herons belong to the Ardeidae family. The four major subfamilies include the bitterns, day herons, tiger herons and night herons. The heron family is an ancient one, dating back about 55 million years. Cranes belong to the Gruidae family of birds -- a family that has been around for more than 40 million years. There are two subfamilies: Gruinae and Balearicinae.

Flying Habits

  • Herons tend to be loners and generally fly solo. They adapt well to both fresh and salty water based on food availability. Cranes, however, like to fly in groups and in a line formation, similar to geese. They live in freshwater habitats during most of the year but may live in saltwater during winter and the migration period. Herons typically fly with their necks bent in the shape of an "s", with their legs outstretched. This makes them appear to have short necks. Cranes, however, fly with both their neck and legs outstretched.

Dietary Needs

  • Cranes are omnivores, favoring insects but also eating fish, crustaceans, mollusks, frogs and grains. Cranes in conservation areas feed on a blend of vitamins, fish, corn meal, soy and alfalfa. Shelled corn is added to crane chow in the winter for extra carbohydrates and female cranes are given extra calcium in the spring to help with eggshell production. Herons are carnivores and only eat meat. They prefer fish, but will also eat insects and mollusks. The s-shaped neck allows them to quickly strike prey at a distance. Some herons, like the black-crowned night heron, will shake their prey to death before swallowing it head first.

Size and Color

  • The Goliath heron is the largest of its kind. It is commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa. Some can also be found in South and Southwest Asia. The Goliath heron can weigh up to around 9 pounds and reach up to 4.5 feet tall, with a wingspan of 7 feet. Cranes are larger and some species, like the red-crowned crane of Eastern Asia, can grow to be about 4.9 feet tall. Cranes can have a wingspan of 7.9 feet and may weigh up to 22 pounds. Both herons and cranes can have grey, white, black or brown feathers depending on the species. Cranes may also have red or blue feathers.

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