The Harrying of the Ardeidae

January 18, 2012 | Greg Dodge

GBH-1 on the far side of the Wetlands.

For the past several years we’ve had a Great Blue Heron (GBH) in the Wetlands on nearly a daily basis. It seems to be the same blue heron, or at least it behaves in the same manner each time that I see it, it’s people shy and stays on the far side of the Wetlands when people are present. Other GBHs come into our Wetlands from time to time, I’ve seen as many as three at a time foraging amongst the willows, but most of them do not exhibit the same wariness as the “local” GBH (we’ll call our heron GBH-1).

For the most part, other than the mergansers and kingfisher who compete with the heron for food, the Wetlands belongs to GBH-1 and he, or she, has it all to itself, especially during the winter months. Lately though we’ve had a Great Egret staying with us and another GBH (GBH-2) has been drawn to our little oasis for the many tadpoles and shiners swimming about in the shallows. The word is out!

The egret jabs at a fish just feet from the boardwalk.

and comes up a winner.

The new arrivals are not quite as reluctant as GBH-1 to take advantage of the abundant shiner population along the edges of the Wetlands during peak visitor hours. You can often see the egret feeding a few feet from shore while GBH-1 sits over on the far side of the Wetlands resting, preening, or just waiting out the crowd of human visitors.

GBH-1 escorts egret from the area (the size difference is exaggerated here, the heron is closer to the camera).

Of late, the competition has apparently become too much for GBH-1 to bear, he’s taken to harrying the intruders at every chance. In the past few weeks I’ve seen GBH-1 repeatedly chase the other heron and egret off into the woods or out beyond my line of sight up and over the pines. They always seem to come back though, or sit it out among the dense branches of the willows or pines or even on the boardwalk railing until GBH-1 is not watching.

It’s amazing to watch these large birds maneuver through the trees (wingspan about two meters).

GBH-2 waits for the all-clear before heading down to the water.

Stepping lightly, GBH-2 heads towards the abundant fish in the smartweed just a few short yards away.

Too late, GBH-1 has spotted GBH-2 and is on the way to roust the intruder.

All of these herons know that there is a rich supply of shiners and tadpoles in one little corner of the Wetlands. That supply is dwindling as the fish and tadpoles get eaten by the birds. But while it lasts, is it worth protecting?

GBH-1 spends much time and energy chasing after the two newcomers. But although GBH-2 and the egret spend more time than they’d like fleeing GBH-1, they also sneak quite a bit of time eating while GBH-1 is sitting on a rock, afraid to approach the edge of the Wetlands because of the human traffic going by.

I watched the egret for about fifteen minutes while it stood in the smartweed and saw it catch five fish and a tadpole. Every fish or tadpole that egret eats is potentially one less for GBH-1. GBH-1 relies on this Wetlands for its daily sustenance. It’s a matter of life and death for these birds, all of them. Although we’ve had a very mild winter so far, that could change at any time. Cold weather means more fuel needed to feed the engine that powers these birds. GBH-1 obviously feels that this Wetlands is a resource it will fight for.

Although it’s not fun and games for the herons, I’ve haven’t seen any of the birds make contact, actually strike one another. Too risky, even a minor injury could be fatal in the long run for these birds. A sprained limb, or worse, a broken limb, would almost certainly bring eventual death to a heron. It’s better to chase-and-run than do actual combat.

As I said, it’s not fun and games for the birds, but it’s certainly fun, and interesting, for us humans to watch the birds jostle for position in the Wetlands. I just hope that GBH-1 can maintain the pace. I have a feeling, though, that there will be fewer harrying sallies as the season progresses. I think that GBH-1 will give in to the other birds’ presence. GBH-2 and the egret don’t seem to be taking the hint, and GBH-1 can’t keep it up forever.

———————————

What’s the difference between an egret and a heron? Not much. Along with bitterns, herons and egrets comprise the family Ardeidae. The term egret is generally used to describe the white plumaged members of that family, although the Reddish Egret has both a white and dark form, the dark form having a blue-gray body and reddish neck feathers.

There is also a white form of the Great Blue Heron and the Little Blue Heron is white for the first year of its life, turning blue the following spring after hatching. Confused? Don’t worry, you wouldn’t be totally wrong if you called an egret a heron.

The word egret comes from a French word, aigrette, meaning a fluff or plume of feathers worn as a hair or head ornament, or jewels depicting such. The pretty, long legged, long necked white birds that we now call egrets got their name from the fact that they wear long elegant looking plumes, mostly on their backs, during the breeding season. At one time the birds were harvested for those feathers which were most often used in the millinery trade, the birds were killed and their feathers put on headwear.

Back to Top