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THROUGH THE WOODS: Green heron

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The green heron. Nancy Jane Kern

OUR LARGEST AND MOST EASILY OBSERVED HERON is the great blue heron, while the much smaller green heron, although abundant, can be difficult to find. Green herons are shy birds that like thick vegetation and the quiet shallow water of marshes, farm ponds, and river edges. Birds are easier to find if they move about. Green herons like to remain motionless and walking to another spot is quite slow and deliberate. They often fly home to roost for the night and may be seen at places like Stockport Creek at dusk. Look for a crow-sized bird with slow wing beats, crooked neck and trailing legs.

If you walk around a reedy pond you may startle one into flight. They have a loud and unmusical, raspy “skeow” call, which can be startling. Another characteristic is discharging a long stream of white excrement after taking flight. Both of these behaviors could certainly put off a predator. If you get an opportunity to watch this bird fish, they like to perch on a fallen tree limb or rock close to the surface of the water. They eat most small pond life, particularly small fish and tadpoles, and will very quickly extend their long neck and grab one. Occasionally they might spear a larger fish, but in general, they just extend their long neck and grab with their large, thick bill.

The most interesting thing about this bird is that it may use bait to catch fish. They will find insects like mayflies, dragonflies, and grasshoppers (bread if available), drop one in the water, and catch the fish that come to eat it. There is a great video of this titled “Green Heron Fishing with Bread” on YouTube, and the heron gets a nice meal. It shows that birds can be smarter than we think. Since they have been around longer than man, maybe we actually learned to bait fish from them.

These herons get their name from the dark green cap of feathers they can raise in a crest. The color can be difficult to see and is not as prominent as the more blue-gray color of the back so people often ask where the green color is and question its name. The neck is rusty with some dark and white streaks in the front which mimic the reeds and may help disguise it to the fish. The eyes are yellow and the legs orange. It nests in our area in spring from April to June and produces 3-5 eggs. The nest may be a rehabilitated old nest or may be new and built in the crotch of a tree. In our area, they are often in pine trees which probably help hide and shade the nest. The male brings long, pencil-thin sticks which the female works into the structure. They do not line the nest and both parents take turns incubating the eggs. Chicks hatch in three weeks and fly about three weeks later.

I saw two small juvenile birds at a Ghent farm pond this week. The green heron is migratory and leaves when bodies of water begin to freeze in the fall.

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