BIRDING: Great blue wonders of the sky
WILD ABOUT BIRDS
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist
The Great Blue Heron is one of the most widespread and adaptable wading birds in North America. They are the largest of the North American herons with long legs, a sinuous neck, and a thick, dagger-like bill. Head, chest, and wing plumes give the birds a shaggy appearance. In flight, the Great Blue Heron curls its neck into a tight “S” shape for a more aerodynamic flight profile; its wings are broad and rounded and its legs trail well beyond the tail.
Whether poised at a river bend or cruising the coastline with slow, deep wing beats, the Great Blue Heron is a majestic sight. This stately heron with its subtle blue-gray plumage often stands motionless as it scans for prey or wades belly deep with long, deliberate steps. When hunting, Great Blue Herons wade slowly or stand statue-like, stalking fish and other prey in shallow water or open fields. They use a lightning-fast thrust of the neck and head as they stab with their strong bills.
Great Blue Herons eat nearly anything within striking distance. While primarily fish eaters, they will also eat amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, insects and other birds. They grab smaller prey in their strong mandibles or use their bills to impale larger fish, often shaking them to break or relax the sharp spines before gulping them down.
Great Blue Herons forage, usually alone, across much of the U.S. They forage in grasslands and agricultural fields, where they stalk frogs and mammals. Most breeding colonies are located within 2 to 4 miles of feeding areas.
Away from the colony, Great Blue Herons defend feeding territories from other herons with dramatic displays in which the birds approach intruders with their head thrown back, wings outstretched, and bill pointing skyward. Gulls and even humans may also be a target of this defensive maneuver.
Equally at home in coastal (marine) environments and in fresh water habitats, the Great Blue Heron nests mostly in colonies, commonly large ones of several hundred pairs. Some colonies or “heronries” are found near developed areas where multiple nests are located in the same tree. They build bulky stick nests high in trees.
Male Great Blue Herons collect much of the nest material, gathering sticks from the ground and nearby shrubs and trees, and from unguarded and abandoned nests, and presenting them to the female. She weaves a platform and a saucer-shaped nest cup, lining it with pine needles, moss, reeds, dry grass, mangrove leaves, or small twigs. Nest-building can take from three days up to two weeks; the finished nest can range from a simple platform measuring 20 inches across to more elaborate structures used over multiple years, reaching 4 feet across and nearly 3.5 feet deep. Ground-nesting herons use vegetation such as salt grass to form the nest.
Look for Great Blue Herons in saltwater and freshwater habitats, from open coasts, marshes, sloughs, riverbanks, and lakes. They aren’t likely to visit a typical backyard. However, they are sometimes unwelcome visitors to yards that include fish ponds. A length of drain pipe placed in the pond can provide fish with a place to hide from feeding herons.
Thanks to specially shaped neck vertebrae, Great Blue Herons’ “S” shape neck also allows them to quickly strike prey at a distance. Great Blue Herons have specialized feathers on their chest that continually grow and fray. The herons comb this “powder down” with a fringed claw on their middle toes, using the down like a washcloth to remove fish slime and other oils from their feathers as they preen. Applying the powder to their underpants protects their feathers against the slime and oils of swamps. Great Blue Herons can hunt day and night thanks to a high percentage of rod-type photoreceptors in their eyes that improve their night vision.
Most of the information for this article was taken from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website at birds.cornell.edu.
Local bird expert Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50, which caters to folks who want the best backyard birdfeeding experience possible. Email your birdfeeding and birding questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and he’ll answer them in his bi-weekly Q&A column in the Free Press.
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