Was John James Audubon correct when he wrote of the Green Heron that “the stupidity of the bird is truly remarkable,” or is the Green Heron one of the smartest birds in the world? Audubon, who published a major study of American birds in the 1820s and 1830s, considered Green Herons unwise because they stood still, seemingly unconcerned, and let him get “within a few paces” of them.
Audubon reported, “The flesh of this species affords tolerable eating, and Green Herons are not unfrequently seen in the markets of our southern cities, especially of New Orleans.”* Maybe that is why he felt they were stupid to let him come so close!
Today Green Herons are considered quite intelligent because they are among the few birds that use tools. The Green Heron often gets a good meal by dropping insects (such as mayflies), feathers or bits of food onto the surface of the water. They stand by, ready for a fish or other aquatic animal to take the bait.
On July 10, I had the good fortune to see a Green Heron on the pond at the west end of the DuPage River Greenway. It didn’t fly away immediately when I approached but only gave me time to take two photos before it flew out of sight.
I had no idea what I had seen. Neither did the friends to whom I showed my photos. I went online, searching for a match. When I thought I had identified the bird, I emailed Thomas J. Benson, Critical Trends Assessment Program Coordinator of the Illinois Natural History Survey, Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois. Benson verified my identification. He believes that this particular Green Heron is at least a year old.
If you ask several people who have spotted Green Herons to describe them, you may get very different descriptions. Some have described the Green Heron as short and “stocky,” while others describe a thin body and neck. On the other hand, when the “groovy neck” (as Mike Bergin calls it) is extended, the Green Heron looks slender. Mike has posted some fascinating photos of Green Herons at http://10000birds.com/green-herons-and-their-groovy-necks.htm. A comparison of Mike’s first two pictures will show you why the same bird can be described as “slim” and as “stocky.” In my photo, the bird is not hunched down, nor is the neck extended.
Another reason for variety in descriptions of the Green Heron is that a juvenile has a more pronounced “sash” on its chest, and its colors are less vivid than those of an adult.
Typically, the Green Heron comes to Illinois in March or April, a little earlier than most herons. The male will find a nesting place before seeking a mate for the season. He courts his desired bride with a series of colorful aerial and nonaerial displays. Eventually she responds, and he takes her to the place he has chosen.
The male and female build a flat nest of sticks, usually in a tree or shrub. She probably does more of the work as he is often busy defending his territory. She lays 2-4 eggs. For about three weeks the eggs are incubated; the father assists in this responsibility, and also shares responsibility for feeding the hatchlings. By the age of 30-35 days, the young are fully fledged and able to care for themselves.
If you are lucky, you may get a glimpse of this remarkable bird at the pond on the Greenway between now and September. In the fall, Green Herons leave Bolingbrook for the south. These birds, that are active during the day when not migrating, take the red-eye south.
*You can read what Audubon wrote about the Green Heron at http://web4.audubon.org/bird/boa/F38_G1e.html.
© Wilda Morris