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Trying to fly in Nature’s face

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ANCRAMDALE–When I watch a great blue heron wing its way across the sky and hear its deep croak of a call as it passes overhead I imagine I have stepped back to a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

   Those pterodactyl-like creatures never cease to cast a time-machine spell over me.

   That’s why when I saw one crouched in a very compact posture on the ground it drew my attention.

   I was out for a walk last Monday when I saw the heron sitting oddly on a wide strip of mowed lawn between the road and the pond across from my house.

   I watched it for a little while, deciding it must be biding its time, waiting there for a frog or fish to surface in the pond several yards away.

   Just then, my brother pulled up to his nearby mailbox, got out of his truck and walked around to the side of the road to get his mail. He saw the bird too and spoke to it loudly, “What are you doing there? What’s the matter with you?”

   From my where I stood, I saw the bird leap up and come down quickly. When my brother saw me watching, he told me there was something wrong with that bird.

   I dismissed his assessment, asserting that bird was just surveying the scene for a snack. But when my brother drove away, I moved toward the bird.

   It leaped up again, but this time, being closer, I could see that it was trying to fly, but appeared to be wobbly on its legs and crashed quickly to the ground, beak first.

   When I got back to my house, I called a friend of mine who I knew could tell me the name of someone who could help.

   She gave me the name of a veterinarian in Chatham, who, when I called, told me to call a wildlife rehabilitator, also in Chatham. Both told me if I could catch the heron and bring it to them, they would try to help.

   I knew that was not possible.

   First of all, herons are big birds. The largest of North American herons, they stand 3.2 to 4.5 feet high, weigh between 4.6 and 7.3 pounds, and have a wingspan ranging from 5.5 to 6.6 feet, according to the National Geographic website: animals.nationalgeographic.com.

   Second of all, I had seen Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds at a very young age.

   I called another friend, who knew of an organization that used to rescue birds of prey. She said she would try to find the contact information, thinking they might be willing to come out to get any large bird, even though it was not a raptor.

   In the meantime, I called another wildlife rehabilator and left a message.

   My second friend called naturalist and Columbia Paper columnist Nancy Kern, who called to warn me not to try to capture the heron because they could be dangerous and would aim for and peck my eyes out.

   Alfred Hitchcock taught me that, thank you very much.

   She also gave me the name, phone number and email address of a state Department of Environmental wildlife guy she thought might know someone who could help. I left a message.  

   A while time later I got a call back from the second wildlife rehabilitator. She asked me about the heron, where it was located and how to get there. She too asked me if I could catch it–and I assured her I could not. I gave her the directions and she told me she would try to get there sometime the following morning.

   I was trying to convince myself there was nothing more I could do when the phone rang again. It was the wildlife rehabilitator who had said couldn’t come till tomorrow. She was parked in my driveway but could not see the bird with her binoculars.

   I rushed out and showed her and her daughter where the bird was sitting hunched by the pond. I thanked her and said I feared the heron would become coyote chow overnight.

   Within a minute or two, the woman had donned protective goggles, heavy canvas gloves and had assembled a 10-foot pole that served as the handle for a net.

   She crept up on the bird aiming to place the net over it. The heron had other ideas and leaped up, jumped into the pond, spread out its wings and started squawking wildly.

   The woman was unintimidated by the snapping, flapping, yapping bird, and on the third try had netted it, hauled it in to shore and, with the assistance of her daughter, wrapped it up in towels and carried it to her Subaru, where she put it inside an extra-large pet carrier.

   She had to hold the bird’s beak closed because it was trying to gouge her eyes out.

   Just before she tucked the bird away, she quickly inspected it, showing me that one of the bird’s legs was stripped of skin to the bone and that at least one of its toes was missing.

   Looks like the work of a snapping turtle, the woman said, vowing to do all she could to help the injured bird.

   I told the daughter that her mother was a hero for doing what she does.

   Five days later I called the woman to find out how the heron was doing. Sadly, she told me it had died the previous night.

   Both of its legs had been skinned she said and one of them was severely infected.

   She had consulted with a network of rehabilitators across the country, some of whom specialize in birds, and found out that if the heron recovered from its leg injury, the loss of a toe would not inhibit its survival in the wild. The severe leg infection necessitated the use of antibiotics, which have the unfortunate side effect in herons of making them more susceptible to respiratory difficulties, which the heron, a juvenile, succumbed to, she said.

   Though the infected leg did show some improvement and the heron did eat a little bit on its own, it “never got up on its feet.” She suspected the bird may have had other health issues because it was “bone thin,” she told me.

   When I told her that I planned to write a story about the whole experience, she asked me not to use her name, saying she preferred that people find her through the established channels–veterinarians or a Department of Environmental Conservation referral–which is why she is not identified here.

   The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Animal Diversity website animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu, says that great blue herons always live near water sources and nest in trees or bushes that stand near the water. They typically breed from March to May in the north, have one mate per breeding season and lay two to seven eggs per season. Eggs take about 30 days to hatch.

   “More than half (69%) of the great blue herons born in one year will die before they are a year old,” says the website. The average lifespan of a great blue heron is 15 years.

   Asked about animals that prey on herons in the wild, DEC Senior Wildlife Biologist Nancy Heaslip told The Columbia Paper Tuesday that an adult heron doesn’t have many predators, but that eggs or very young birds in the nest may fall victim to any animal that can climb up a tree and get them, such as raccoons.

   She also said she recently saw a video shot out in western New York of a black bear climbing up a tree and raiding a heron nest.

   Fledglings that have left the nest, but are not yet expert flyers and spend a lot of time on the ground, may find themselves the prey of any number of animals, Ms. Heaslip said.

   While she never heard of a heron being attacked by a snapping turtle, she recently encountered a heron in Rensselaer County with its wing feathers tangled in fishing line that needed her help.

   Though not a service she normally performs, Ms. Heaslip said she was able to get close to the heron by blocking its view of her with her backpack, which she kept between herself and the bird, noting, “they won’t strike what they can’t see.”

   She grabbed the back of the bird’s head, got the line untangled from the wing and let go of the bird, which was only too happy to get the heck out of there.

   As a favor to great blue herons and other wildlife, Ms. Heaslip suggested that people not leave fishing line lying around.

   Wildlife rehabilitators are volunteers licensed by the state to receive and treat distressed wildlife. They can be located by calling the DEC office that serves your region.

   To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@ColumbiaPaper.com

 

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