We would like to tell you about a really big bird called the Great Blue Heron, the largest herons in North America. They can fly as fast as 56 km per hour and have been around on earth for nearly 2 million years. Although they are mostly blue, their eyes are yellow, their legs are green and their head is white. They are very tall, up to 1.37 meters and can spread their wings up to 1.83 meters.
Often you see herons standing so still and so silently that they don’t seem to move at all. Sometimes they stand just on one leg, so they can keep the other one warm. But, if they see a fish or something else they like to eat, they move so fast to catch it, you will miss it if you blink your eyes.
Do you know how they catch a fish? Herons have a really long bill and that bill is sharp! It can spear a fish right through! If the fish is small it can just scoop it up and toss it head first right down their gullet. Gulp!
Whether they are at the beach, standing on mud flats, or on farm land, those places are their grocery store and herons are always hunting for food. They can’t phone up for a pizza and you wouldn’t find one in Thrifty’s with a shopping bag. They hunt for their food outside. It is a big job and to survive, they must do it every day, just like you must eat every day. So a heron’s lunch might be fish, or frogs, or bugs, small rodents, sometimes even small birds.
Getting too close to a heron frightens it away from its hunting ground, and there goes lunch! And we would never let our dog chase one or the heron may never come back. So we protect this beautiful bird by staying away from it and, if we see one, only looking at it from a distance.
So, when a heron is not looking for food, what else is it doing? Birds, like most every living thing on earth, want to have a family. A male heron will look for a female heron to mate with and raise baby herons. Then the male flies off and looks for a very tall tree in an area where other herons are building their nests, or on the ground if he can’t find a tree. He will look for some place safe to raise their chicks. Herons like to be with other herons because it is safer for them. But it is getting harder and harder for them to find these places as trees get cut down, roads get built and people move in to places that used to be the herons’ home. They also have to worry about bigger birds, like eagles that can attack their chicks.
Luckily, mom and dad herons don’t give up easily. They look long and hard and finally find a place to build their nest. Maybe they are down at Pt. Holmes beach where there is beach food and many trees or by the Oyster River or at Willow Point.
And what do you know? We are right in the middle of the months that herons are building their nests and making a family. Hopefully, heron parents find a really high tree top. The male heron will gather twigs, bark, and some conifer needles, maybe a little bit of moss and bring it all back to the female heron. She is the builder of their nests. She starts with the floor, making it nice and soft for the heron chicks. And she does it all without arms, just her mouth and feet. Imagine.
Pretty soon, the heron mom lays 2 or 4 or 6 or 7 greenish blue eggs, and both mom and dad take turns keeping the eggs warm so they will hatch. It takes about 28 days. A whole month. Shhhh baby herons are sleeping. Look out little chicks! Mom and Dad heron have to watch for big birds like owls and eagles who are hungry for you!!
But soon the babies hatch and grow and, as they grow, they start flapping their wings and hopping along branches. They want to fly and they can’t wait to grow up just like you. But, some of the chicks don’t get enough to eat because their parents can’t find enough food. Some baby herons even fall out of the nest. That is a long way down without a parachute. If 10 chicks are born, nearly 7 will die in the first year. Do you know what to do if you find a baby bird that might have fallen out of a nest? Please don’t feed it. It needs special food. Put it in a box and keep it warm and quiet and dark and bring it to Mountainaire Avian Rescue so we can give it a chance to live.
So, what does a heron sound like? Have you ever heard one? They can make a number of different calls. They can HONK, they can CROAK, they can sound like a scary dinosaur and some say they sound like they are yelling “Fraunnk” while someone grabs their neck. Baby herons make a sound like a ticking clock until they get something to eat. It must get noisy around their home as the babies are hungry all day long.
And, we almost forgot. Herons have a little bit of magic in them. It is called “powder down”. Powder down are special patches of down feathers that fray and break down into a fine powder when the heron rakes them with a foot. Something like an old shirt that gets worn out and falls into shreds. All those crushed powder down feathers then fall on slime from fish it has caught. You know how slimy the outside of fresh fish can be. The powder down clumps up and the heron can brush it all off them with a foot. They use that same powder on the underside of their bodies to keep swamp slime off them. It is like their own special type of soap. Wonder what it smells like?
How many herons do we have around here? Well, there aren’t nearly as many as there used to be. In fact, Great Blue Herons may be in trouble because of things predators and humans do. We know they need a peaceful, safe place to live and enough food to survive to raise their chicks. So what can we do to make sure they have that kind of home?
We can be a heron advocate and keep our dogs on a leash and not let them chase birds. We can also avoid walking on their food at the beach grocery store, especially during those times when herons are raising their families.
Something that MARS will do is make some signs to put on the beach, or along the river, or anywhere herons like to make their home. Signs that tell people what happens when we and our dogs scare herons from their feeding places.
Watch Great Blue Herons on Live Cam at: http://cams.allaboutbirds.org/channel/8/Great_Blue_Herons/
Thank you: Dianne Pollock for writing this story; Sandy Royer and Mike Yip for your photos and TD Friends of the Environment for funding our educational project