‘Fishing long legs,’ a paradox of beauty

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-110675749015391.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert Hedeen’, ‘“Fishing long legs” waits patiently to spear its next meal.’);

There are few things in the natural world more beautiful than the sight of a great blue heron flapping its wings and gliding over the surface of the water in perfect compliance with the laws of aerodynamics. But, to observe this bird when it is not in flight, one is hard pressed to imagine a more disproportionate and gangly creature.

“Fishing long legs,” as the early Native Americans called the great blue, is actually the tallest bird one is apt to see in a natural setting in North America. It is true, however, that the whooping and sand hill cranes are somewhat taller, but they are very rare and are not readily seen outside of zoos or protected refuges.

Despite its large appearance, the great blue heron weighs only about 8 pounds when mature; the exaggerated neck, wings, and legs giving the perception of a bird much heavier than it really is.

This relentless hunter of marshes and estuarine shores along the coasts of the United States has moved inland in many areas where it has become adapted to living in association with the freshwater environment. It is a resident of western Illinois along the Mississippi River, and, during the warm months of the year, it is a frequent visitor to the Rock River Valley.

Standing statue-like in a foot or so of water, the heron patiently awaits its prey. When an unsuspecting fish or crustacean comes within range of its sharp-pointed, stiletto-like beak, the heron strikes with the speed of a rattlesnake, impaling its dinner as deftly as you would spear a boiled shrimp with a toothpick at a buffet.

One of the reasons fishing long legs has been able to hold its own in the natural world is its versatile and diverse feeding habits. When the aquatic pickings get slim, the heron readily moves to land to feed. In 1931, a noted ornithologist made a detailed study of the feeding habits of the bird on land and found a variety of prey animals utilized. Grasshoppers, snakes, frogs, toads, lizards, mice, squirrels, and even a kitten were observed being speared and adroitly thrust down the 2-foot long gullet. Resident herons in the north will frequently migrate south as the waters freeze, in much the same way the osprey or sea eagle does.

On the eastern shore of Maryland, where I lived for several years, many of the natives believe great blue herons are dangerous and will make unprovoked attacks on humans. Children, especially, are supposedly prone to attack, with the first thrust of the terrible beak being aimed at the eyes. As far as can be determined, however, there is no authenticated record of a great blue heron attacking man.

Great blues are shy birds and quickly take to flight if approached. The only exception to this I have ever known is a great blue who resides along the Gulf Coast of Alabama, and is affectionately known locally as “Old Sam.” Old Sam would stand in the breaking waves a short distance off the beach, waiting for a surf fisherman to bring in a fish. He would then boldly approach the angler and more or less beg for the catch. One time, he approached me so closely that I was able to pat him on the head before I gave him the small croaker I had reeled in.

This is a solitary bird for most of the year, but when the mating season approaches, they band together to establish a nesting area or rookery in a secluded site. I have not seen one of these rookeries, but descriptions of others portray a situation of utter chaos. The squawks and grunts of the young and old birds alike create a deafening din. The area smells to high heaven due to decaying broken eggs, waste material, and rotting fish.

The young are fed partially digested food that is regurgitated by the parents and squirted haphazardly toward the gaping mouths of the fledglings. As soon as the members of the new generation are able to fend for themselves, the rookery is abandoned, and each heron goes its own way to live the solitary life until the next breeding season arrives.

Like many other birds with beautiful plumage, the great blue heron was once hunted extensively. Large numbers were slaughtered, along with cranes and egrets, for their feathers that were destined to adorn milady’s fashionable hats. Laws protecting these birds have been in effect for many years, and their numbers have dramatically increased.

I once found a great blue that had been dead only a short time, the victim of a shotgun blast. A few misguided individuals believe these birds decimate fish populations and make every effort to kill them. The miniscule numbers of fish eaten by this and other species of birds does not have an adverse effect on fish populations. In fact, fish populations are improved by the heron’s predation as overcrowding is kept in check.

Let’s hope such callous disregard for one of nature’s most beautiful creatures is confined to a very few individuals. It would be hard to imagine a natural aquatic setting without the presence of fishing long legs.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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