The Great Blue Heron is a relatively common sight in southeastern Ohio, especially along the streams, rivers, lakes, ponds and other bodies of water in the state. They can occasionally be seen standing in the shallow water, motionless, watching and waiting for prey to come swimming, crawling, slithering, or hopping by.
It is a tall, elegant bird, and one of the largest birds found in Ohio, standing nearly four feet tall when fully grown, with long legs and a long beak. While it is called a Great Blue Heron, it is predominately more slate-and-rust-colored with a bluish tinge. They have long yellow bills and a mostly white head with a black plume running from the eyes to the back of their heads, and a long, s-shaped, neck.
Slender and graceful in flight, to me they have a decidedly prehistoric appearance, which makes me jokingly refer to them as pterodactyls – referring of course to the long-beaked, long-extinct flying pterosaur.
They can be found year-round in much of the United States except for the high mountain and desert regions, and up into Canada and even southern Alaska when breeding. Not all Great Blue Herons are migratory, but migrating herons can be found throughout the Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America. Vagrant Great Blue Herons have been recorded in the United Kingdom, Greenland, the Azores and Hawaii. An all-white variant, called the Great White Heron, can also be found in southern Florida – namely in the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, which compromises the northern part of the Florida Keys.
Although they primarily prey on fish, they are opportunistic feeders and will take whatever comes within range. Crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, insects, even rodents and small birds are all in danger within the reach of the heron’s bill, swiftly snapped up and swallowed whole. Mostly the Great Blue Heron’s presence is innocuous, but fish hatchery owners must often take special precautions to thwart these birds, and many a decorative pond owner has returned to find his pond cleaned out of fish.
Herons will usually nest in colonies or a “heronry,” which may consist of hundreds of birds and nests, generally located in tall trees near waterbodies. Predators of heron eggs and young may include turkey or black vultures or other birds of prey including eagles and owls, and mammals including black bears and raccoons. Alligators have been known to occasionally snatch a Great Blue Heron. Due to their large size and long, dagger-like bill, grown Great Blue Herons are rather intimidating to most predators.
Of all the things that have threatened Great Blue Herons in the relatively recent past, perhaps none was as strange as that which threated to wipe out almost all elegantly feathered shore birds in the late 1800s and early 1900s. That threat? Ladies’ fashion.
Birds like Great Blue Herons, pelicans, cranes, egrets, ibises, and grebes were slaughtered by the millions each year to satisfy the millinery trade, which produced the ornate, feathered and plumed ladies hats so in demand by Victorian Era fashionistas. Ladies themselves, realizing that many of these bird species were in danger of being driven to extinction, demanded reform culminating in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 which put a stop to the market hunting and plumage trade of wild birds.
Today, now safe from the hatmakers, the Great Blue Heron is considered a species of least concern from a conservation standpoint, however humans still pose a constant threat; even something as innocuous as discarded fishing line can trap and eventually kill these large, elegant birds.
Jim Freeman is employed with the Meigs Soil and Water Conservationist and is a long-time contributor. He can be reached weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org