Herald Outdoors Columnist
Back in the1950s and early ’60s, the older folks called him “pond crane.” They lumped him into a category that included all birds with long beaks, long legs and long necks that waded shorelines in search of food. I was well into my teens when I learned this particular misnamed pond crane was, in reality, the great blue heron, a wildlife species that always impressed me and one I have come to regard with deep admiration and respect. Some critters and birds just plain have a special place in my heart. The great blue is one of these.
The sight of a great blue 50 years ago was extremely exciting. It was also something of a novelty. The widespread use of highly toxic agricultural pesticides and indiscriminate killing had reduced the birds to low numbers in many areas.
“Thankfully,” said wildlife biologist Rick Claybrook, “wildlife conservation efforts have restored the great blue and other wading birds to stable populations. Today, the sight of these beautiful birds is quite common on rivers, lakes, and other wetland habitats.”
The great blue heron is the most widespread heron in North America and also the largest, standing almost four feet tall with a wingspan of nearly six feet. Despite its size, an adult bird weighs only about five pounds, due to its thin, hollow bones. This weight-reducing feature greatly aids in the bird’s getting airborne. As the name implies, the great blue’s coloration is slate blue with white on the crown and throat.
“The breast is streaked black and white and is complemented by plume feathers protruding from the chest and back,” Claybrook added. “It has jet-black patches on its flanks and adults have long black plumes above the eyes. Males and females are very similar in appearance.”
When in search of prey, the heron quietly stalks shallow waters with the aid of its long legs and large feet. Fishes make up the mainstay of its diet, but the bird also dines on a variety of prey consisting of, but not limited to frogs, salamanders, crayfish, small mammals, and insects.
“It’s entertaining to watch a great blue fishing along the water’s edge,” Claybrook said. “It’s physique gives it the edge and it’s usually not long before it makes a catch. When it spies a fish, the heron remains completely still while it peers at the water with absolute concentration. Then it strikes whatever unsuspecting prey it’s stalking just like lightning.”
According to Claybrook, a heron actually uses its long spear-like bill as tongs to clamp down on, rather than stab its prey. They are also very territorial and quick to chase other herons away from their fishing grounds.
“A unique physical feature of the heron is a specialized neck vertebra,” said Claybrook. “It allows the bird to curl its neck into an ‘S’ shape, which lets it deliver a strong, accurate strike at prey. It also enables it to fold its long neck back when flying.”
The great blue heron is a loner until March, when mating season begins.
“At this time,” Claybrook explained, “they become social and form colonies. They construct large stick nests high up in the branches of trees near good feeding grounds. The female lays a clutch of three to seven bluish-green eggs and incubation takes about four weeks. Young are fed by regurgitation and fledge around two months of age.”
If habitat conditions do not degrade, great blue herons will return to the same nesting areas year after year. Active heron nesting colonies can be greatly impacted by human disturbance and should be avoided.
Thanks to ongoing conservation efforts, the sight of blue herons and other wading birds is once again common in the wetlands of the Americas, particularly the South, where they thrive in the warm climate and the abundant waterways.
“More importantly,” Claybrook concluded, “good numbers of these beautiful birds are indicative of a healthy, stable natural environment. The sight of one is always good news.”
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