October 21, 2013

Blue herons are fascinating

By JOLENE WALLACE, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — My younger brother spent a week with us in August. Whenever we get together we “argue” about great blue herons. 

My brother is from Texas and swears that the herons in Texas are blue. Really blue — like sky blue, from what he tells me, and ours are grey. I don’t believe it for a minute but we have fun with it. One year he sent me an indoor thermometer with a heron on it. Looked grey to me. Maybe he needs to get his eyes checked.

I love to watch herons. I enjoy watching them stand still as statues in the shallows of the lake waiting for a fish to come by, and then in a flash, pierce the water, and the fish, with their strong, sharp beak. 

I like the “kraak” they make when they’re disturbed, and the sight of them in flight, low to the water, with their necks in an “S” shape and their legs trailing behind. It’s amusing to watch seagulls give up their spots on the dock when a heron starts walking their way. It’s easy to see who’s in charge.

How a creature 3 to 4 feet tall with a wingspan of 5 to 6 feet can wade through the water without so much as a ripple intrigues me. Herons have a 9 to 10 inch deliberate stride and webbing between two of their three front-facing toes. This webbing prevents them from sinking into the mud. Despite their size, they weigh only 5 or 6 pounds, partly because, like all birds, their bones are hollow.

In addition to the three front-facing toes, herons have a fourth toe pointing backwards. Each toe has a claw.

The claws on the middle toes are used to comb “powder down” from specialized feathers on their chest that fray continuously as they grow. This “powder down” is used like a washcloth to removed fish slime and oils from their feathers as they preen. This down, applied to their undersides, protects them from slime and oils in swampy waters.

Great blue herons have good night vision and can hunt for food day or night. They may be the originator of the “stick built” home. The male generally brings sticks and twigs of varying size to the female, who uses them to construct a platform and a saucer-shaped nest structure which she lines with moss, pine needles, dry grass, and small twigs. 

Both the male and female sit on the eggs, two to six of them, and share the rearing of the chicks. A large number of herons may nest in the same area, creating a rookery.

Herons eat fish, frogs, insects, reptiles, small mammals and other birds. If you have a backyard fish pond, you may find an unwelcome heron there looking for a meal. Provide your fish a hiding place by putting a length of drain pipe in the pond for them to take shelter in.

The herons will be migrating as open water becomes scarce in the North Country. Before they leave, if you are in an area near the water’s edge, look for heron tracks. They will be imprints on the mud, 6 to 7 inches long and are interesting to see. 

And if you happen to see my brother, tell him what color herons really are.

Jolene Wallace is the horticulture program educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. Contact her at 561-7450 or