Column: The great Blue Heron

Published 8:32 am Thursday, April 27, 2006

By Staff
Many years ago, I worked as a volunteer conservation officer with Dick Cox, the conservation officer stationed here in Cass County for many years and now retired. One evening, Dick stopped by the house with a bundled blanket in his arms. He placed it on the floor and pulled the blanket back to reveal a great blue heron with a broken wing. I'd never been up close and personal with a blue heron and was quite fascinated, as was Dick. The heron didn't share our feelings, though. He glared at us and hissed venomously at our every move. At one point, I thoughtlessly let my hand get too close and faster than the eye could see the heron exacted his revenge. He nailed me with that stiletto beak with such force I had to check to be sure he hadn't taken my hand off. It was only a minor blood letting, but I had a new found respect for great blue herons.
I learned several other things during that encounter. You see, a great blue heron's typical viewing distance is at one hundred yards or more and it's obvious they're a pretty good sized bird. Only when you get up close do you realize just how big. They're huge, as in four feet long huge. Their wings span much more than that. Their size, however, is somewhat deceiving. They look like a fairly stout bird, but underneath all those feathers is a really lank, scrawny body that doesn't amount to much.
Many folks are confused between great blue herons and cranes. A while back when sandhill cranes were only pictures in a book it didn't much matter; crane, heron, whatever, we all knew it was the blue heron that was being referred to. Now with sandhills at least as common as blue herons, if not more so, we can no longer use the word crane generically.
Sandhill cranes and great blue herons are roughly the same size. Surprisingly, the heron is actually a bit larger, but unless they're standing side by side how could you tell? From a distance their coloration is somewhat similar, too. It's their profile that is most easily differentiated. Cranes stand erect usually with necks straightened. Blue herons always seem to have a slouched look with more neck curvature. In flight they’re easy to tell apart. Cranes fly with their necks stretched straight out. Herons always fly with their necks held in a sharp, distinct curve.
We've had a great blue heron hanging out all winter in the creek flowing through our yard. They're supposed to migrate to more southerly states for the winter but apparently this guy hadn't heard that. I get a kick out of watching him fish. Herons have two fishing methods. They're best known for standing frozen as a piece of driftwood awaiting a fish or frog to come in range. Then in a lightning flash the head darts into the water and more often than not comes up with dinner crosswise in its bill. With considerable effort the fish is maneuvered around head first and down the gullet it goes.
Our guy prefers the second tactic of stealthily wading the shallows. Ever so slowly he creeps up the creek, gently lifting one leg out of the water and then sliding it back in without a ripple and then the other. When he spots a fish he stalks ever so patiently into range, very slowly extends his neck forward until the bill is just above the surface and then ZAP! Gotcha. Throughout the winter he did a lot of fishing and not much getting but recently the DNR planted small trout and he now thinks he's died and gone to heaven.
We associate blue herons with waterways where they feed on fish, frogs, crayfish and aquatic insects but they also wander into the uplands more than people realize. They dearly love mice and gophers and in some areas this is their predominant food source. Something I didn't know until recently is blue herons can swim, which I’ve seen ours do on occasion. Purportedly they can also dive underwater after prey but I can't vouch for that. Carpe diem.