Suburban Wild: Herons: Birds of Heaven

The heron remains among our most elegant and intriguing birds

Of all the entertaining bird species that grace our shoreline, perhaps the most elegant is the heron.

The Canada geese are majestic, the black and white guillemots and oystercatchers with are striking, but there is something dreamy and mythic about the heron. There are about 64 species worldwide and ours is the Great Blue Heron, relative of egrets and bitterns.

These are the shore-waders who stalk the shallows on long delicate legs, and pierce prey at lightning speed with long sharp bills, eating it whole. For the busy urbanite taking a de-stressing walk along our beaches, the heron’s ability to stand stock-still for long periods is uncannily relaxing to observe, as is its sudden graceful lift-off into flight, wings outstretched in a two-metre span.

Fish are the heron’s favourite food but it will also spear or dive after shrimp, crabs, insects, reptiles and even small birds and mammals. Resolute and stoic as well as balletic in movement, the heron appears in ancient, oriental and native American mythology as a living parable of the virtue of waiting, a picture of patience. It has been called a messenger of gods, embodiment of Apollo, and the bird who shed tears over Jesus on the cross. It is famed for loyalty, which it displays towards its mate.

Herons perform complex courtship dances including a series of advances and rejections ending with the male giving the female a twig with which she begins to build a nest. Both parents share the incubating and feeding of young, but return to their former solitary life after the young are fledged. We see their large shaggy-looking nests in tree-tops, where the nestlings and eggs are prey to bald eagles and marauding raccoons. The nests form colonies and the bigger the colony (25 or more nests), the higher the survival rate of offspring. Eagles aren’t the herons’ worst problem though: a B.C. Government report from 2005 notes the threats of “development and tree-cutting” in “fast-urbanizing areas.” In this then, herons face pretty much the same dangers as every other species of wildlife around us.

Herons are sometimes confused with cranes, the other “bird of heaven,” although they are classified in different evolutionary orders (herons being in Pelicaniformes). Cranes like open shallow waters and avoid trees. Like some herons they are migratory, but they stretch out their necks while flying while herons tuck their heads in. The birds’ similarity lies in their statuesque elegance and mythical status as resolute and versatile lords of the wetlands. The heron is also called a “liminal” creature, meaning it occupies borderlands between two states or two places at once: active and still, or land and sea. It’s also companion of both Diana (moon) and Apollo (sun), hunting by night as well as day thanks to eyes adapted to both darkness and daylight.

It is always a pleasure to watch the soothing movements of this most self-contained of birds, dignified in its subtle blue-grey plumage, sometimes standing on the beach as if pondering the tides and sometimes gazing down from the chimney-top of a waterfront house. Our shoreline would be less beautiful without the presence of this neighbour, the familiar of the gods.

Barbara Julian is a local writer and nature enthusiast. She writes about Oak Bay’s urban wildlife.