Special to the Tribune-Star
Like a relative who has worn out his welcome, the hot, parched weather of this young summer has already overstayed its visit with us, so my wife and I have found ourselves walking our road later in the evenings to keep our feet cool and our backs dry. In the smoldering middays of past weeks, we’ve hiked past waterless ditches and dusty fields, and even the birds we normally see have taken shelter to avoid the heat lamp of the sun. Now, we watch a later shift of wildlife checking in, including a Great Blue Heron we have seen standing in the dying evening light near the stagnant end of a withering pond.
Despite herons’ having grown reputations as annoying raiders of suburban goldfish ponds, we admire these birds with their pole vault-like legs and sink trap-shaped necks, their scoliotic shoulders hunched in anticipation of finding a meal. Since we know not to speak loudly as we near the pond (primarily to avoid a neighborhood dog named Lug who loves to tag along on our walks), and the soles of our cushioned shoes make little noise on the pavement, we have been able to watch him a number of times as he stands in the shallows on his stilts, staring into the water like an old man remembering.
In time, he notices that he has an audience, so in a single, awkward lurch, he launches himself into a flight that appears improbable to us, that is until we see him get off the ground.
Great Blues (scientific name, Ardea Herodias, which literally means “heron” in both Latin and Greek) are big and interesting. Often nearing 41⁄2 feet from head to tail, they can have wingspreads as wide as 75 inches. Even though they appear to be an aerodynamic accident, they can recoil their long necks into their shoulders as they fly. Since their bones are hollow, herons often weigh only 4 to 8 pounds, making their size deceptive, and they also have the distinction of owning knees that work in reverse, making their gait stilted and awkward.
The heron we watch has his pick of a half-dozen small neighborhood ponds, including the one that sits beneath the ridge on which our house is built. We have watched him fly over our place, only needing an occasional flap of his enormous wings as he catches the air on his trip west. We feel privileged that he has taken up residence near us, for herons have been spotted over a huge range of places, from coastal Alaska to Nova Scotia to Mexico. They’ve even been spotted in the Caribbean and in Europe, yet herons don’t really migrate, often spending their entire 15-year lifespan in a relatively small place. Since we are homebodies, ourselves, I guess that is another reason why we like them.
Herons are wading birds, so unless we see one nesting or in mid-flight, we will find them near water. They love fish, but aren’t finicky eaters, dining on frogs, aquatic insects, crawdads, even mice. In turn, because of their size, they don’t have that many natural predators, although they do occasionally end up on the plate of a bobcat or coyote. Red-tailed hawks and bald eagles have also been known to get after them.
When we saw our heron earlier in the spring — and when we knew what regular rain felt like — he stood in clear, cool water well up onto the bank of a full pond. But now, he stands mostly in the weedy curling mud, straining to see his prey through a layer of tepid, lime-green scum. Nonetheless, we spy him in virtually the same spot each day, as if he has reserved a favorite table at a choice restaurant. In a way, we have used his legs as reedy yellow measuring sticks as the pond drops week after week in this lengthening drought.
We are hopeful that the Great Blue we watch has a nest nearby, which is likely. Herons usually re-use nests (the males are notorious rakes, often remodeling an old nest with a new mate), and they most often keep their own nest for several seasons. We’re not certain that we are even seeing the same bird each time, for herons tend to live in colonies called “heronies,” where parents share time sitting on three to five greenish-blue eggs. At eight weeks, the youngsters are pretty much on their own, but, like some college grads these days, young herons have been observed coming back to the nest for weeks afterward for a free meal and a warm place to stay.
Much of what I have read about herons involves how homeowners can get rid of them, for the birds do enjoy dining at backyard fountains, suburban ponds and urban spillways. It is not unusual to hear of people who use air horns and whistles and propane cannons to scare herons away; others use motion sensor lights, plastic alligators and firecrackers. Unfortunately, I also read of a study about Blue Herons and the devastating effects of industrial pollutants on them. It seems that although herons are big birds, they are very much at risk by what their human neighbors dump and discard and flush. It is no wonder they are seen as anti-social birds, rightfully earning the nickname, “Big Cranky.”
Herons are solitary fellows; they don’t seem to share the belief with most human beings that moving about and making noise are signs of progress. I guess the older that Joanie and I get to be, we agree with them. Maybe we’re getting a bit cranky, too.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at email@example.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com for more information about his books.