If you hang around rivers or lakes much, you will have no doubt seen a blue heron fly over head, slowly beating its enormous wings, long neck tucked in, and trailing long legs like a kite tail. They are one of the largest birds in our area, reminding my wife of a pterodactyl from an old B movie.
Blue herons (Ardea herudias) are classified as shore birds, always hanging around water where they do most of their feeding. Their size is their best identifier, standing close to four feet tall (mostly legs and neck) and flapping a six foot wing span. They are slate-gray in color, with shaggy feathers at the base of their neck. Their head is whitish with a long black eyebrow. They don’t talk much except when disturbed, where they sound out a harsh croaking noise as they fly away. When you hear it you are likely being cussed out.
Herons feed primarily on small fish, thought they are opportunistic and will prey on amphibians, reptiles, rodents, insects, and even small birds. They feed in shallow water, often standing still and waiting for fish to come to them, which they will spear or grab with their long, sharp beaks, swallowing the meal whole. They have special vertebrae in their necks that allow them to curl it into an s-shape that facilitates a quick strike ability for prey.
Herons are for the most part solitary animals, but they do nest in colonies for protection. Family life begins with the male building a bulky nest of sticks and wooing a female. She will then lay three to six pale blue eggs that both parents incubate for around 28 days. The chicks don’t hatch all at once, and the first one usually gains the upper hand and aggressively gets the lion’s share of the food, which consists of regurgitated whatever from the parents. The young can fly in about 60 days, but will continue to be fed by the parents for another few weeks. Adults pair bonds only last for the nesting season, and new partners are selected each year. Males tend to use the same nest each year, adding to it each time, so large nests indicate an older bird.
Blue herons are an example of where humans messed up but made it right. The birds had a severe decline in numbers in the 1960s and 70s when the widely used DDT insecticide caused eggs to have thin shell and would crack under the weight of the adults. When DDT was banned the herons recovered and are doing well.