Stolen: Another Summit County local – the great blue heron |

Stolen: Another Summit County local – the great blue heron

by Dr. Joanne Stolen

We spotted a great blue heron flying over the blue water of Dillon Reservoir recently – silhouetted against the our brilliant, blue Colorado skies, its long neck folded back on the shoulders, long legs trailing behind. I once saw about six or seven great blue herons in a tree in the cove of Sentinel Island. I wondered if they nest there, as they do nest in groups in tall trees and sometimes shrubs.

My closest encounter with a great blue heron was rowing on a salt estuary in New Jersey. One flew over me and let out a loud, raspy squawk or hoarse croak and let “one” loose. Anyway, luckily it missed me and my boat, but if the reverberation and size of the splash was any indication of volume, it was a big one!

The great blue heron is the largest of the North American herons, and can reach 4.5 feet in height with a wing span of over 6 feet. If you sit quietly you can watch them feed. They will wade along the shoreline and stalk fish or stand perfectly still until a fish comes within range of their long necks. They kill their prey with a quick thrust of their sharp, blade-like bill, and then swallow it whole. They have been known to choke to death by attempting to swallow fish too large for their long, S-shaped necks. Some great blue herons have been observed to fly and dive underwater to catch fish; others hover over the water and submerge their heads to catch fish; and some swim in deep water and feed on fish found near the surface. Their main diet is fish, but they also eat small rodents, amphibians and insects. Generally you see them hunting alone.

Their nest will be a large platform of sticks, lined with pine needles, reeds, dry grass, bark or twigs. They lay about two to seven pale blue eggs, and both parents will protect the nest, incubating them for about four weeks. They generally pair for only one season, finding new mates the following year. The parents rarely fly straight to the young, perching instead a few yards from the nest and then, after a few minutes, flying to the nest and regurgitating predigested food. Perhaps this is a protective measure, as eggs and young are often preyed upon by crows, ravens, gulls, eagles and raccoons. The oldest and largest chicks often get most of the food. They grasp the adult’s bill and gulp the food. Generally, the chicks will leave the nest after about two months. I once saw parent herons teaching little miniature herons to hunt. They would wade stealthily along with their parents. If they weren’t patient enough the prey would get spooked and escape. Herons can live about 15 years, but 6-8 years of age is the average.

In the 1800s great blue herons were nearly hunted to extinction because of a fashion trend for using their plumes on women’s hats. Fortunately for the heron, these hats are no longer in fashion! In the 1960s, they were vulnerable to egg-shell thinning as a result of exposure to the pesticide DDT, which lowered reproductive success. Currently the species is thriving.

Once, when I was visiting friends in Florida, I saw a neighbor fishing in a canal in front of his house. He had as daily companions a great blue heron, and an egret. They would sit right next to him; one on either side, and wait for their morning breakfast. Pretty good use of a human!

Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is a former professor of microbiology from Rutgers now teaching classes at CMC. Her scientific interests are in emerging infectious diseases and environmental


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