Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: Great Blue Heron

Long legs and neck are distinctive for this gray/blue bird but the Great Blue Heron’s stalking behavior demonstrates unparalleled patience. My most recent view was at Ody Brook where one blended with Little Cedar Creek scenery. It was standing in shallow water watching, waiting, and poised to capture a meal. I stood still hoping to see it successfully capture lunch.

The heron was about 200 feet upstream where at first I did not notice it. A lump with a branch protruding upward transformed into a stationary bird. Though I did not move, my presence likely was the reason the bird flew. It gained altitude over the creek and moved farther upstream where it could feed without an audience.

Refraction bends light rays when the medium changes from air to water. Objects are not where they appear. The heron spears frogs, fish, or other prey and has learned to compensate for prey location that is different than it appears. Look at the eyes to notice it uses binocular vision. This does not mean magnification as might be expected. It means it uses both eyes together like we do to create a three-dimensional image that provides depth perception. Most birds have eyes that are positioned on the sides of the head and it prevents them from using them together to create depth perception. It is referred to as monocular vision.

Herons stand like statues where they wait for prey to come within striking distance. With lightning fast action their sharp pointed yellow bill enters the water and often enough secures a meal. Starving is likely for those that do not master fishing skills. Fortunately, they have inherited skills they perfect with practice.

Some challenges present life-threatening hazards. We observed a dead heron on the road when we were driving to Lincoln Lake. When driving east of Greenville, a heron flew from the ditch into our vehicles path on M-57. Karen was able break enough for the bird to reverse direction and we barely avoided hitting it.

About once a year my vehicle collides with a bird. If I am not on a freeway, I stop if it is safe and go to the bird. I sit with it until the glimmering eye sparkle clouds to a dull fog as life fades. It is a short memorial reverence for a life lost. I am particularly unsettled by car animal collision deaths. I prefer death to arrive by predation. When a heron preys on another animal, it is a valuable and appropriate occurrence in its nature niche.

One can make a case that scavengers will feed on road kills but there are enough natural deaths to provide scavengers with sustenance. Road kills seem excessively wasteful of life.

A reader told me he heard a rifle shot and investigated. A Great Blue Heron had been feeding in a pond stocked with fish for humans to catch and he found the bird floundering as it died. Laws are established to protect herons from such killings but people ignore laws when it suits their desires. There was a time when killing birds that kill other animals was encouraged because people thought humans should have exclusive rights to kill other animals. Some still do. Egrets, relatives of herons, were driven to near extinction because they were over hunted. Wolves, cougars, sandhill cranes, and many other predators have suffered similar fates.

People are still divided about whether predators other than people should be allowed to live. There is currently an effort to weaken wildlife protections and gut the Endangered Species Act by the Trump administration. Ecological science is being ignored in decision making and federal agencies are not being allowed to use science-based decision making in many instances. Contact legislators to voice your opinion.

There is need for social impact decision practices that are balanced with protecting the environment to supports our economy and environmental sustainability for future generations of wildlife and people.

Great Blue Herons nest in colonies high in trees. They leave nesting sites to fly many miles to feeding areas. I encourage people to allow herons to thrive even if they make a living by fishing in streams and ponds we share.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.