Great blue herons are long out of this world, an ancient species, fossils dating back at least 14 million years.
In certain poses, these birds can show that age. If you google the bird, it’s hard to find a species account that doesn’t include a reference to “prehistoric flying dinosaur,” “great blue pterodactyls,” “almost prehistoric sound,” or “prehistoric reptilian creature.”
Birds, including herons, are distantly related to dinosaurs, but herons are no more closely related than tits.
They just look like that sometimes.
Catch them in transitional moments—sudden take-offs, a landing in the wind—and they’ll have an ancient look, the bone and corners of a creature split from rock and wired together.
Great blue herons are found in most of North America and are common in Minnesota. They are birds of the family ardea.
I wanted more information about that family, so I googled the words ‘heron family’. I came up with the genealogy of the Thomas and Sarah Reigers, among others.
The more effective keyword is the Latin name, ardea. You will discover that this bird family has 12 members, distributed worldwide, including great egrets.
(Apparently there is also an Ardea featherless family dating back to 1920 in Arizona, more info at Ancestry.com, that doesn’t do birds.)
Stately at rest, Great Blues stand still on the shores of the lake or on the edge of a cattail swamp, often there to defend a feeding area.
They maintain their solemn demeanor while flying. They move like mourners on the wing.
Herons are wary. It’s hard to purposefully get close to them. And they don’t stay to exchange pleasantries when they are surprised. I have taken many pictures of heron nether parts.
These are common birds, most often nesting in colonies, the location chosen for at least two reasons. The birds prefer to be near good foraging sites and seek out terrain that will discourage mammalian predators. Raccoons are deadly.
An island will work, or a bunch of dead trees in the middle of a swamp. Everywhere trees are important as the basis for the stick nests. Great blues will also use artificial nesting platforms.
Add humans to mammalian predators, although I don’t think many would find herons suitable for the casserole. Fishy taste and chewy I bet.
It is curiosity that unfortunately brings us closer, as herons will sometimes abandon nests and even young if disturbed.
Heron nests are often mixed in trees with those of double-crested cormorants, the species often attributed to bad fishing days. Both species eat fish, herons can swallow larger fish. However, neither pose a threat to fishing as a sport.
A heron colony is no place for weak virgins. (If you’re reading this over breakfast, stop now.) The ground beneath the large perch nests was covered in eggshells, feces, rotting prey remains, and dead chicks.
Chicks in the nest will lean off the edge and vomit if disturbed, another reason to enjoy this creature from a distance. Three hundred meters is recommended in the interest of the birds, an added advantage for us.
Researchers say the bird will eat almost any creature it can catch and swallow — fish, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and even other birds. It can handle food items longer than 14 inches.
In Montana a few years ago I saw a heron fighting a trout as long as my arm, hand to elbow. The bird won; the battle was over when he got tired of being tossed and stabbed by a popping fish.
For certain indigenous peoples, a heron is a sign of good luck. To dream of a heron symbolizes luck, prosperity and determination according to the website Mysticurious.
Mature great blues weigh about 5 pounds. Males are slightly larger than females. Conservation – a kind of least concern. Winter for Minnesota birds is likely to be on the Caribbean coasts.
Lifetime birdwatcher Jim Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.