Great Blue Heron
Latin: Ardea herodias
The State of Louisiana has always been my favourite portion of the Union, although Kentucky and some other States have divided my affections; but as we are on the banks of the fair Ohio, let us pause awhile, good reader, and watch the Heron. In my estimation, few of our waders are more interesting than the birds of this family. Their contours and movements are always graceful, if not elegant. Look on the one that stands near the margin of the pure stream:--see his reflection dipping as it were into the smooth water, the bottom of which it might reach had it not to contend with the numerous boughs of those magnificent trees. How calm, how silent, how grand is the scene! The tread of the tall bird himself no one hears, so carefully does he place his foot on the moist ground, cautiously suspending it for awhile at each step of his progress. Now his golden eye glances over the surrounding objects, in surveying which he takes advantage of the full stretch of his graceful neck. Satisfied that no danger is near, he lays his head on his shoulders, allows the feathers of his breast to droop, and patiently awaits the approach of his finned prey. You might imagine what you see to be the statue of a bird, so motionless is it. But now, he moves; he has taken a silent step, and with great care be advances; slowly does he raise his head from his shoulders, and now, what a sudden start! his formidable bill has transfixed a perch, which he beats to death on the ground. See with what difficulty be gulps it down his capacious throat! and now his broad wings open, and away be slowly flies to another station, or perhaps to avoid his unwelcome observers.
The "Blue Crane" (by which name this species is generally known in the United States) is met with in every part of the Union. Although more abundant in the low lands of our Atlantic coast, it is not uncommon in the countries west of the Alleghany Mountains. I have found it in every State in which I have travelled, as well as in all our "Territories." It is well known from Louisiana to Maine, but seldom occurs farther east than Prince Edward's Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and not a Heron of any kind did I see or hear of in Newfoundland or Labrador. Westward, I believe, it reaches to the very bases of the Rocky Mountains. It is a hardy bird, and bears the extremes of temperature surprisingly, being in its tribe what the Passenger Pigeon is in the family of Doves. During the coldest part of winter the Blue Heron is observed in the State of Massachusetts and in Maine, spending its time in search of prey about the warm springs and ponds which occur there in certain districts. They are not rare in the Middle States, but more plentiful to the west and south of Pennsylvania, which perhaps arises from the incessant war waged against them.
Extremely suspicious and shy, this bird is ever on the look-out. Its sight is as acute as that of any Falcon, and it can hear at a considerable distance, so that it is enabled to mark with precision the different objects it sees, and to judge with accuracy of the sounds which it hears. Unless under very favourable circumstances, it is almost hopeless to attempt to approach it. You may now and then surprise one feeding under the bank of a deep creek or bayou, or obtain a shot as he passes unawares over you on wing; but to walk up towards one would be a fruitless adventure. I have seen many so wary, that, on seeing a man at any distance within half a mile, they would take to wing; and the report of a gun forces one off his grounds from a distance at which you would think be could not be alarmed. When in close woods, however, and perched on a tree, they can be approached with a good chance of success.
The Blue Heron feeds at all hours of the day, as well as in the dark and dawn, and even under night, when the weather is clear, his appetite alone determining his actions in this respect; but I am certain that when disturbed during dark nights it feels bewildered, and alights as soon as possible. When passing from one part of the country to another at a distance, the case is different, and on such occasions they fly under night at a considerable height above the trees, continuing their movements in a regular manner.
The commencement of the breeding season varies, according to the latitude, from the beginning of March to the middle of June. In the Floridas it takes place about the first of these periods, in the Middle Districts about the 16th of May, and in Maine a month later. It is at the approach of this period only that these birds associate in pairs, they being generally quite solitary at all other times; nay, excepting during the breeding season, each individual seems to secure for itself a certain district as a feeding ground, giving chase to every intruder of its own species. At such times they also repose singly, for the most part roosting on trees, although sometimes taking their station on the ground, in the midst of a wide marsh, so that they may be secure from the approach of man. This unsocial temper probably arises from the desire of securing a certain abundance of food, of which each individual in fact requires a large quantity.
The manners of this Heron are exceedingly interesting at the approach of the breeding season, when the males begin to look for partners. About sunrise you see a number arrive and alight either on the margin of a broad sand-bar or on a savannah. They come from different quarters, one after another, for several hours; and when you see forty or fifty before you, it is difficult for you to imagine that half the number could have resided in the same district. Yet in the Floridas I have seen hundreds thus collected in the course of a morning. They are now in their full beauty, and no young birds seem to be among them. The males walk about with an air of great dignity, bidding defiance to their rivals, and the females croak to invite the males to pay their addresses to them. The females litter their coaxing notes all at once, and as each male evinces an equal desire to please the object of his affection, he has to encounter the enmity of many an adversary, who, with little attention to politeness, opens his powerful bill, throws out his whigs, and rushes with fury on his foe. Each attack is carefully guarded against, blows are exchanged for blows; one would think that a single well-aimed thrust might suffice to inflict death, but the strokes are parried with as much art as an expert swordsman would employ; and, although I have watched these birds for half an hour at a time as they fought on the ground, I never saw one killed on such an occasion; but I have often seen one felled and trampled upon, even after incubation had commenced. These combats over, the males and females leave the place in pairs. They are now mated for the season, at least I am inclined to think so, as I never saw them assemble twice on the same ground, and they become comparatively peaceable after pairing.
It is by no means a constant practice with this species to breed in communities, whether large or small; for although I have seen many such associations, I have also found many pairs breeding apart. Nor do they at all times make choice of the trees placed in the interior of a swamp, for I have found heronries in the pine-barrens of the Floridas, more than ten miles from any marsh, pond, or river. I have also observed nests on the tops of the tallest trees, while others were only a few feet above the ground: some also I have seen on the ground itself, and many on cactuses. In the Carolinas, where Herons of all sorts are extremely abundant, perhaps as much so as in the lower parts of Louisiana or the Floridas, on account of the numerous reservoirs connected with the rice plantations, and the still more numerous ditches which intersect the rice-fields, all of which contain fish of various sorts, these birds find it easy to procure food in great abundance. There the Blue Herons breed in considerable numbers, and if the place they have chosen be over a swamp, few situations can be conceived more likely to ensure their safety, for one seldom ventures into those dismal retreats at the time when these birds breed, the effluvia being extremely injurious to health, besides the difficulties to be overcome in making one's way to them.
Imagine, if you can, an area of some hundred acres, overgrown with huge cypress trees, the trunks of which, rising to a height of perhaps fifty feet before they send off a branch, spring from the midst of the dark muddy waters. Their broad tops, placed close together with interlaced branches, seem intent on separating the heavens from the earth. Beneath their dark canopy scarcely a single sunbeam ever makes its way; the mire is covered with fallen logs, on which grow matted grasses and lichens, and the deeper parts with nympheae and other aquatic plants. The congo snake and water-moccasin glide before you as they seek to elude your sight, hundreds of turtles drop, as if shot, from the floating trunks of the fallen trees, from which also the sullen alligator plunges into the dismal pool. The air is pregnant with pestilence, but alive with musquitoes and other insects. The croaking of the frogs, joined with the hoarse cries of the Anhingas and the screams of the Herons, forms fit music for such a scene. Standing knee-deep in the mire, you discharge your gun at one of the numerous birds that are breeding high over head, when immediately such a deafening noise arises, that, if you have a companion with you, it were quite useless to speak to him. The frightened birds cross each other confusedly in their flight; the young attempting to secure themselves, some of them lose their hold, and fall into the water with a splash; a shower of leaflets whirls downwards from the tree-tops, and you are glad to make your retreat from such a place. Should you wish to shoot Herons, you may stand, fire, and pick up your game as long as you please; you may obtain several species, too, for not only does the Great Blue Heron breed there, but the White, and sometimes the Night Heron, as well as the Anhinga, and to such places they return year after year, unless they have been cruelly disturbed.
The nest of the Blue Heron, in whatever situation it may be placed, is large and flat, externally composed of dry sticks, and matted with weeds and mosses to a considerable thickness. When the trees are large and convenient, you may see several nests on the same tree. The full complement of eggs which these birds lay is three, and in no instance have I found more. Indeed, this is constantly the case with all the large species with which I am acquainted, from Ardea coerulea to Ardea occidentalis; but the smaller species lay more as they diminish in size, the Louisiana Heron having frequently four, and the Green Heron five, and even sometimes six. Those of the Great Blue Heron are very small compared with the size of the bird, measuring only two and a half inches by one and seven-twelfths; they are of a dull bluish-white, without spots, rather rough, and of a regular oval form.
The male and the female sit alternately, receiving food from each other, their mutual affection being as great as it is towards their young, which they provide for so abundantly, that it is not uncommon to find the nest containing a quantity of fish and other food, some fresh, and some in various stages of putrefaction. As the young advance they are less frequently fed, although still as copiously supplied whenever opportunity offers; but now and then I have observed them, when the nests were low, standing on their haunches, with their legs spread widely before them, and calling for food in vain. The quantity which they require is now so great that all the exertions of the old birds appear at times to be insufficient to satisfy their voracious appetite; and they do not provide for themselves until fully able to fly, when their parents chase them off, and force them to shift as they can. They are generally in good condition when they leave the nest; but from want of experience they find it difficult to procure as much food as they have been accustomed to, and soon become poor. Young birds from the nest afford tolerable eating; but the flesh of the old birds is by no means to my taste, nor so good as some epicures would have us to believe, and I would at any time prefer that of a Crow or young Eagle.
The principal food of the Great Blue Heron is fish of all kinds; but it also devours frogs, lizards, snakes, and birds, as well as small quadrupeds, such as shrews, meadow-mice, and young rats, all of which I have found in its stomach. Aquatic insects are equally welcome to it, and it is an expert flycatcher, striking at moths, butterflies, and libellulae, whether on the wing or when alighted. It destroys a great number of young Marsh-Hens, Rails, and other birds; but I never saw one catch a fiddler or a crab; and the only seeds that I have found in its stomach were those of the great water-lily of the Southern States. It always strikes its prey through the body, and as near the head as possible. When the animal is strong and active, it kills it by beating it against the ground or a rock, after which it swallows it entire. While on the St. John's river in East Florida, I shot one of these birds, and on opening it on board, found in its stomach a fine perch quite fresh, but of which the head had been cut off. The fish, when cooked, I found excellent, as did Lieutenant PIERCY and my assistant Mr. WARD. When on a visit to my friend JOHN BULOW, I was informed by him, that although he had several times imported gold fishes from New York, with the view of breeding them in a pond, through which ran a fine streamlet, and which was surrounded by a wall, they all disappeared in a few days after they were let loose. Suspecting the Heron to be the depredator, I desired him to watch the place carefully with a gun; which was done, and the result was, that he shot a superb specimen of the present species, in which was found the last gold fish that remained.
In the wild state it never, I believe, eats dead fish of any sort, or indeed any other food than that killed by itself. Now and then it strikes at a fish so large and strong as to endanger its own life; and I once saw one on the Florida coast, that, after striking a fish, when standing in the water to the full length of its legs, was dragged along for several yards, now on the surface, and again beneath. When, after a severe struggle, the Heron disengaged itself, it appeared quite overcome, and stood still near the shore, his head turned from the sea, as if afraid to try another such experiment. The number of fishes, measuring five or six inches, which one of these birds devours in a day, is surprising. Some which I kept on board the Marion would swallow, in the space of half an hour, a bucketful of young mullets; and when fed on the flesh of green turtles, they would eat several pounds at a meal. I have no doubt that, in favourable circumstances, one of them could devour several hundreds of small fishes in a day. A Heron that was caught alive on one of the Florida keys, near Key West, looked so emaciated when it came on board, that I had it killed to discover the cause of its miserable condition. It was an adult female that had bred that spring; her belly was in a state of mortification, and on opening her, we found the head of a fish measuring several inches, which, in an undigested state, had lodged among the entrails of the poor bird. How long it had suffered could only be guessed, but this undoubtedly was the cause of the miserable state in which it was found.
I took a pair of young Herons of this species to Charleston. They were nearly able to fly when caught, and were standing erect a few yards from the nest, in which lay a putrid one that seemed to have been trampled to death by the rest. They offered little resistance, but grunted with a rough uncouth voice. I had them placed in a large coop, containing four individuals of the Ardea occidentalis, who immediately attacked the newcomers in the most violent manner, so that I was obliged to turn them loose on the deck. I had frequently observed the great antipathy evinced by the majestic white species towards the blue in the wild state, but was surprised to find it equally strong in young birds which had never seen one, and were at that period smaller than the others. All my endeavours to remove their dislike were unavailing, for when placed in a large yard, the White Herons attacked the Blue, and kept them completely under. The latter became much tamer, and were more attached to each other. Whenever apiece of turtle was thrown to them, it was dexterously caught in the air and gobbled up in an instant, and as they became more familiar, they ate bits of biscuit, cheese, and even rhinds of bacon.
When wounded, the Great Blue Heron immediately prepares for defence, and woe to the man or dog who incautiously comes within reach of its powerful bill, for that instant he is sure to receive a severe wound, and the risk is so much the greater that birds of this species commonly aim at the eye. If beaten with a pole or long stick, they throw themselves on their back, cry aloud, and strike with their bill and claws with great force. I have shot some on trees, which, although quite dead, clung by their claws for a considerable time before they fell. I have also seen the Blue Heron giving chase to a Fish Hawk, whilst the latter was pursuing its way through the air towards a place where it could feed on the fish which it bore in its talons. The Heron soon overtook the Hawk, and at the very first lounge made by it, the latter dropped its quarry, when the Heron sailed slowly towards the ground, where it no doubt found the fish. On one occasion of this kind, the Hawk dropped the fish in the water, when the Heron, as if vexed that it was lost to him, continued to harass the Hawk, and forced it into the woods.
The flight of the Great Blue Heron is even, powerful, and capable of being protracted to a great distance. On rising from the ground or on leaving its perch, it goes off in silence with extended neck and dangling legs, for eight or ten yards, after which it draws back its neck, extends its feet in a straight line behind, and with easy and measured flappings continues its course, at times flying low over the marshes, and again, as if suspecting danger, at a considerable height over the land or the forest. It removes from one pond or creek, or even from one marsh to another, in a direct manner, deviating only on apprehending danger. When about to alight, it now and then sails in a circular direction, and when near the spot it extends its legs, and keeps its wings stretched out until it has effected a footing. The same method is employed when it alights on a tree, where, however, it does not appear to be as much at its ease as on the ground. When suddenly surprised by an enemy, it utters several loud discordant notes, and mutes the moment it flies off.
This species takes three years in attaining maturity, and even after that period it still increases in size and weight. When just hatched they have a very uncouth appearance, the legs and neck being very long, as well as the bill. By the end of a week the head and neck are sparingly covered with long tufts of silky down, of a dark grey colour, and the body exhibits young feathers, the quills large, with soft blue sheaths. The tibio-tarsal joints appear monstrous, and at this period the bones of the leg are so soft, that one may bend them to a considerable extent without breaking them. At the end of four weeks, the body and wings are well covered with feathers of a dark slate-colour, broadly margined with ferruginous, the latter colour shewing plainly on the thighs and the flexure of the wing; the bill has grown wonderfully, the legs would not now easily break, and the birds are able to stand erect on the nest or on the objects near it. They are now seldom fed oftener than once a day, as if their parents were intent on teaching them that abstinence without which it would often be difficult for them to subsist in their after life. At the age of six or seven weeks they fly off, and at once go in search of food, each by itself.
In the following spring, at which time they have grown much, the elongated feathers of the breast and shoulders are seen, the males shew the commencement of the pendent crest, and the top of the head has become white. None breed at this age, in so far as I have been able to observe. The second spring, they have a handsome appearance, the upper parts have become light, the black and white marks are much purer, and some have the crest three or four inches in length. Some breed at this age. The third spring, the Great Blue Heron is as represented in the plate.
The males are somewhat larger than the females, but there is very little difference between the sexes in external appearance. This species moults in the Southern States about the beginning of May, or as soon as the young are hatched, and one month after the pendent crest is dropped, and much of the beauty of the bird is gone for the season. The weight of a full grown Heron of this kind, when it is in good condition, is about eight pounds; but this varies very much according to circumstances, and I have found some having all the appearance of old birds that did not exceed six pounds. The stomach consists of a long bag, thinly covered by a muscular coat, and is capable of containing several fishes at a time. The intestine is not thicker than the quill of a Swan, and measures from eight and a half to nine feet in length.
GREAT HERON, Ardea Herodias, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. vii. p. 106.
ARDEA HERODIAS, Bonap. Syn., p. 304.
GRUAT HERON, Ardea Herodias, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 42.
GREAT BLUE HERON, Ardea Herodias, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iii. p. 87;vol. v. p. 599.
Male, 48, 72.
Resident from Texas to South Carolina. In spring migrates over the United States, and along the Atlantic coast to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Breeds everywhere. Retires southward in autumn. Common.
Adult Male, in spring.
Bill much longer than the head, straight, compressed, tapering to a point, the mandibles nearly equal; upper mandible with the dorsal line nearly straight, the ridge broadly convex at the base, narrowed towards the end, a groove from the base to near the tip, beneath which the sides are convex, the edges extremely thin and sharp, towards the end broken into irregular serratures, the tip acute. Lower mandible with the angle extremely narrow and elongated, the dorsal line beyond it ascending, and slightly curved, the ridge convex, the sides flattish and ascending, the edges as in the upper, the tip acuminate. Nostrils basal, linear, longitudinal, with a membrane above and behind.
Head of moderate size, oblong, compressed. Neck very long and slender. Body slender and compressed; wings large. Feet very long; tibia elongated, its lower half bare, very slender, covered all round with hexagonal scales; tarsus elongated, thicker than the lower part of the tibia, compressed, covered anteriorly with large scutella, excepting at the two extremities, where it is scaly, the sides and hind part with angular scales. Toes of moderate length, rather slender, scutellate above, reticularly granulate beneath, third toe much longer than second and fourth, which are nearly equal, first shorter, but strong; claws of moderate size, strong, compressed, arched, rather acute, the thin inner edge of that of the third toe finely serrated.
Space between the bill and eye, and around the latter, bare, as is the lower half of the tibia. Plumage soft, generally loose. Feathers of the upper part of the head long, tapering, decurved, two of them extremely elongated; of the back long and loose, of the rump soft and downy; scapulars with extremely long slender rather compact points. Feathers of the fore-neck much elongated and extremely slender, of the sides of the breast anteriorly very large, curved and loose; of the fore part of the breast narrower and elongated, as they are generally on the rest of the lower surface; on the tibia short. Wings large, rounded; primaries curved, strong, broad, tapering towards the end, the outer cut out on both margins, second and third longest; secondaries very large, broad and rounded, extending beyond the primaries when the wing is closed. Tail of moderate length, rounded, of twelve rather broad, rounded feathers.
Bill yellow, dusky-green above, loral and orbital spaces light green. Iris bright yellow. Feet olivaceous, paler above the tibio-tarsal joints; claws black. Forehead pure white; the rest of the elongated feathers bluish-black; throat white, neck pale purplish-brown, the elongated feathers beneath greyish-white, part of their inner webs purplish-blue. Upper parts in general light greyish-blue, the elongated tips of the scapulars greyish-white, the edge of the wing, some feathers at the base of the fore-neck, and the tibial feathers, brownish-orange. The two tufts of large curved feathers on the fore part of the breast bluish-black, some of them with a central stripe of white. Lower surface of the wings and the sides light greyish-blue; elongated feathers of the breast white, their inner edge black, of the abdomen chiefly black; lower tail-coverts white, some of them with an oblique mark of black near the tip.
Length to end of tail 48 inches, to end of claws 63 inches, extent of wings 72; bill 5 1/2, gape 7 4/12; tarsus 6 1/2, middle toe and claw 5, hind toe and claw 2 1/4, naked part of tibia 4; wings from flexure 20; tail 7.
The Female, when in full plumage, is precisely similar to the male.
On Prince Edward's Island, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, there is a fine breeding-place of the Great Blue Heron, which is probably the most northern on the Atlantic coast of North America. The birds there are more shy than they usually are at the period of breeding, and in the most cowardly manner abandon their young to the mercy of every intruder. A friend of mine who visited this place for the purpose of procuring adult birds in their best plumage, to add to his already extensive collection, found it extremely difficult to obtain his object, until he at length thought of covering himself with the hide of an ox, under the disguise of which be readily got within shot of the birds, which were completely deceived by the stratagem.
Adult Male. The interior of the mouth is similar to that of the last species, there being three longitudinal ridges on the upper mandible; its width is 1 1/4 inches, but the lower mandible can be dilated to 2 1/4 inches. The tongue is 3 1/2 inches long, trigonal, and in all respects similar to that of Ardea occidentalis. The oesophagus is 24 inches in length, opposite the larynx its width is 2 3/4 inches, it then gradually contracts to the distance of 7 inches, becomes 1 inch 10 twelfths in width, and so continues until it enters the thorax, when it enlarges to 2 inches and so continues, but at the proventriculus is 2 1/3 inches in breadth. The stomach is roundish, a little compressed, 2 1/2 inches in diameter; its muscular coat thin, and composed of a single series of fasciculi, its inner coat soft and smooth, but with numerous irregular ridges. There is a roundish pyloric lobe, 9 twelfths in diameter. The proventricular glands form a belt 1 inch 4 twelfths in width; at its upper part are 10 longitudinal irregular series of very large mucous crypts; the right lobe of the liver is 3 inches in length, the left 2 inches; there is a gall-bladder of a curved form, 1 1/4 inches in length, and 6 twelfths in its greatest breadth. The intestine is 7 feet 7 1/2 inches in length; its greatest width, in the duodenum, is 3 1/2 twelfths, at the distance of 3 feet, it is 2 3/4 twelfths; a foot and a half farther on it is scarcely 2 1/2 twelfths; and half a foot from the rectum it is 2 twelfths; it then slightly enlarges. The rectum, including the cloaca, is 5 inches 9 twelfths in length; there is a single coecum, 5 twelfths long, and 2 1/2 twelfths in width, the average width of the rectum is 1/2 inch, and it expands into a globular cloaca 2 inches 2 twelfths in diameter. The duodenum curves at the distance of 5 inches, then passes to the right lobe of the liver, bends backward, and is convoluted, forming 22 turns, terminating in the rectum above the stomach.
The trachea is 21 inches in length, from 4 1/2 twelfths to 3 twelfths in breadth, toward the lower part enlarged to 4 twelfths, finally contracted to 3 twelfths. The rings are 252, with 4 terminal dimidiate rings. The right bronchus has 19, the left 20 half rings. The muscles are in all respects as in Ardea occidentalis.
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