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Sailing on stilts. October 4, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was accompanying Silence Dogood into the nearby town of Kutztown, PA when a great blue heron flew across the road. This wasn’t surprising, since there are some large-ish ponds just out of sight of the road, but it seldom happens, and our friend Ben was thrilled, as I always am when I see a heron. It’s easy to recognize them, even if you’re driving and supposed to actually be watching where you’re going. That’s because great blues in flight look sort of like horizontal lightning bolts, with their long necks sticking out in front and their stiltlike legs sticking straight out in back, making their silhouette a zigzag pattern.

Most people don’t think of herons as backyard feeder birds, unless, like our neighbor, they happen to have a water garden featuring some of the herons’ favorite foods, like koi, goldfish, and frogs. (For some reason, he’s not as fond of herons as our friend Ben is.) I’ve several times been thrilled when I was in the backyard with one of our dogs and a great blue blasted off virtually in front of me, sailing over the trees with its great wings outspread and its long legs dangling. (This is takeoff mode, the legs aren’t yet in straight-out-behind mode, probably because the heron was planning to alight in a tree and wait for me and the dog to stop rudely interrupting its lunch and go back inside.) 

Anyway, I was reminded of herons yet again when Silence stopped by the library, and I saw that they were selling A Pocket Guide to Pennsylvania Frogs & Toads (Walter E. Meshaka, Jr. & Joseph T. Collins, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 2010) to benefit youth programs. As a lover of all things herpetological* from earliest childhood, our friend Ben overcame my initial sticker shock (five dollars!) and left the library with a wonderfully informative, beautifully photographed (by Suzanne L. Collins) booklet I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in frogs and toads, wherever they live.

Having just seen the heron, I took a moment to mourn the passing of numerous bullfrogs, pickerel frogs, and Northern leopard frogs from the pond next door at the hands—well, beaks—of hungry herons. Then I decided to write this post about the great blue heron for folks who might not get to see them, or at least not often and up close.

Whenever I want to find out more about a particular bird, my first stop is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website (http://www.birds.cornell.edu/). It’s a one-stop reference for all the basic information on 585 species of North American birds. Just go to their All About Birds section, and you can find a particular species or identify a bird if you don’t know or aren’t sure what it is. Here’s what it said about the great blue heron (along with, of course, lots more information; head on over if you want to know more):

* Great blues live year-round throughout most of the U.S., and they can also be found in the summer and during fall migration in much of Canada and the Rockies. They also winter from Mexico south through Central America.

* These are big birds. They range in length from 38.2 to 53.9 inches, with wingspans from 65.7 to 79.1 inches, and they weigh from 74.1 to 88.2 ounces. Grabbing a calculator, our friend Ben sees that this means that the biggest herons would be 4 1/2 feet long with a 6.6-foot wingspan, and they’d weigh a whopping 5 1/2 pounds. (All flighted birds are designed to be light so they can become and remain airborne; even their bones are hollow to reduce weight. Picture a 4 1/2-foot-tall person who weighed 5 1/2 pounds. Yikes!) By comparison, a bald eagle’s wingspan is 80.3 inches, just over an inch longer than the biggest great blue heron’s. 

* Great blue herons aren’t really blue; the closest they come is blue-grey on the wings, back and belly. Their basic body color is grey. An all-white form, the great white heron, lives around shallow marine waters in southernmost Florida, the Caribbean, and the Yucatan Peninsula.

* You can identify a “blue” great blue by its dramatic head: bright yellow eyes with black plumes extending behind them, bold black “Groucho eyebrows” over each eye, extending to the back of the head, a long, pointed bill that’s grey-black above and yellow-orange below, and a long, shaggy whitish “beard” hanging down from under the head to cover the long, S-shaped throat.  

* Though great blue herons prefer fish, they’re opportunists who’ll eat field mice (voles) and other small mammals as well as frogs, reptiles, birds, and invertebrates. I love Cornell’s description of the heron’s behavior as “stalking.” The site explains that the heron “walks slowly, stands and stabs prey with a quick lunge of the bill.”

* Great blue herons usually nest in colonies in marshy habitats near lakes, ponds and seacoasts, but some colonies live away from water, and some herons nest alone.

This was all interesting, but it didn’t tell our friend Ben what I most wanted to know: Why do water garden owners so often put heron statues in or beside their ponds, when the last thing they want is for a hungry heron to drop by for an unplanned meal? (And trust me, once a heron has found a water garden, it will continue to visit until the pond’s surface is either covered with netting—not quite the serene, beautiful sight the owner had in mind!—or the last fish is gone.) 

Is it simply because herons are so striking and are associated with water, sort of an aesthetic tribute like the deer statues that are all over the place around here? (Doubtless the deer-statue folks would reach for their rifles if they saw real deer in their yards eating their flowers, veggies, trees and shrubs!) Or are herons territorial, so that seeing one already in the pond might keep others away?

I’ve never seen more than one heron at any pond, so I was leaning toward the latter explanation, but after reading that they’re colony nesters, I wasn’t sure. It was time for more research. Heading to my good friend Google, our friend Ben was next directed to the water-gardens-information.com website, which has an entire section on keeping herons out of your pond. (If you’re a water gardener, check it out at http://www.water-gardens-information.com/herons.html.) For the purposes of my research, here’s the relevant section:

“Those who have ponds claim that realistic statues of herons deter these birds because the heron is territorial and when they see one standing beside a pond, the real bird won’t come in. Mind you, when the bird standing beside the pond hasn’t moved in three years, the real bird kind of loses its concern. I’m told that statues with bobbing heads work well for a time. I know several gardeners who regularly move their statues around the garden making a bit of a game of it.”

Thank you, Doug Green, whoever you are! It’s hard to beat in-depth information presented in an entertaining manner.  

So, I guess now our friend Ben and Silence will be waiting for a heron bobblehead to appear by our neighbor’s pond. Meanwhile, keep your eyes peeled for a real heron. If you’re not a water gardener, they’re a wonderful sight. When I’m driving, I often see them standing stock-still in a pond or on a bridge over a pond, “stalking,” as Cornell would put it. They’re so still they might as well be statues, but they’re a lot more interesting!

* To quote A Pocket Guide to Pennsylvania Frogs & Toads,Herpetology is the academic study of amphibians, reptiles, turtles, and crocodilians.” Ha! I’ll bet you thought turtles and crocs were reptiles. I know I did.



1. Alan from Roberts Roost - October 5, 2011

Herons are my favorite birds. We see a few around here. Mostly solitary birds. When we lived in WY there was a group of trees at one point on the river where the herons nested. We had at least 6 and often as many as 12 pair. We also had 4 to 6 pair of bald eagles in the same group of trees. It was fun to watch.

We’ve plans for a pond here at the Roost. Hope we get a heron or two. I’d share the frogs and fish.

We love them too, Alan! How lucky you were to have a heron colony and bald eagle colony to observe! And how fascinating that they were able to coexist. Good luck with your pond. May you attract tons of wonderful species of wildlife and enjoy watching all of them!

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