Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
It’s late summer and the season is moving on. In the woodlands bordering Iowa’s lake and river systems, the last of this year’s crop of green herons are leaving the nest. Cloaked in a bizarre mix of baby fuzz and half grown feathers, the gangling birds aren’t much to look at — at least at this stage of their life. With stubby wing feathers still unfurling, most of the youngsters can’t even fly. It will take another two weeks or so until the juveniles will be on the wing. For the time being, the inexperienced youngsters will continue to rely on their parents to keep them fed as they learn to stalk and catch fish and frogs for themselves.
Although green herons are fairly common nesters across much of the state, most Iowans are unfamiliar with the species. Shy and reclusive, the birds spend much of their time in stealth mode, silently stalking the vegetated margins of lakes, shallow river backwaters and cattail wetlands. Intolerant of human intrusion, green herons are among the most difficult of all wetland birds to approach and observe. And although adults display a delightful array of color, most people will never get close enough to view it.
The heron’s legendary wariness is only surpassed by its seemingly superior intelligence. They are, in fact, one of the very few animals that routinely use tools to obtain food. Because of their small size and comparatively shorter legs, the green heron’s effective hunting territory is much more restricted than for larger wading birds such great egrets and great blue herons. Green herons make up for this physical deficit by reaching into their innovative tool box; utilizing feathers, worms, insects and other items to lure fish to shallower waters. After selecting a specific tool, the birds simply toss the item unto the water’s surface making sure, of course, that it stays within easy reach of their spear-shaped bills. The results are soon coming and herons began reaping the reward as hungry fish come to the bait. Pretty amazing behavior for a supposedly simple creature.