Hungry Heron

The current beautiful but brutally cold weather we are experiencing is lethal for many tiny creatures but also larger birds including our grey heron (Ardea cinerea). Cold spells such as the current one can result in the death of a large proportion of our heron population as they are unable to fish for their normal food supply when water courses freeze over.

Statuesque grey heron on Cambridge Science Park

The grey heron is a member of the family containing  bitterns and egrets and aswell as being the largest European heron is one of the largest UK birds.  They stand almost a metre tall with an average wingspan approximately 185cm and feed predominantly on fish and other creatures, in or close to water, such as frogs and other amphibians, but have been known to take small mammals, reptiles and insects.

Herons are considered to be among the more intelligent birds due to their ability to hunt and catch such a wide range of prey. One individual in Histon has recently exemplified this intelligence in an unusual and amusing way. It arrived in my friends garden looking very sorry for itself a few weeks ago at the start of the winter weather. My friend, being a thoroughly decent sort, gave it some fish from his freezer after which the heron decided to loiter. After several free and very easy meals of frozen pollock it took up residence in the garden and when the stipulated mealtime was not observed to its full satisfaction would sidle along to the door and tap on the glass with it’s bill to summon the next course.

The Histon heron
Waiting for a snack…

…and tucking in to a pollock fillet…
…then retired to a nearby vantage point for some post-prandial relaxation

As well as being sizeable birds heron can be stealthy and are extremely efficient fishermen. They catch smaller fish and eels in their bill but as you can see from the photographs the bill is a fearsome weapon and is used to spear larger prey. I once encountered a heron pecking at a prey item on the bank of the Lode at Wicken Fen, as I approached the heron flew away and I found an enormous pike on the riverbank, approximately 2 feet long (I don’t know if a heron would be capable of catching and killing such a big fish) and it had made a surgical incision running from top to bottom immediately behind the gill and had been busy extracting the entrails.

Heron are not migrants to or from the UK but they have been known to cross the English Channel and turn up in France and the Iberian peninsula. They have various common names including the ‘hernshaw’ in Lincolnshire, the ‘marshmens harnser’ in Norfolk and a ‘shiterow’ or ‘shiteheron’ thought to originate from the herons habit of defecating when disturbed prior to take off!

So if your pond is overstocked with fish in the freezing cold weather and could use  some thinning out why not spare a thought for the struggling heron and break the ice so he can refuel and stave off the cold.


17 responses to “Hungry Heron

  1. Walking the dog yesterday at the Cambridge science park we found the heron lying by the lake, dead sadly, didn’t look like it had been attacked.

    Will miss seeing it, to watch it in flight was a magic sight.

    • Hello Si, thanks for clicking the follow button, I hope you enjoy the Histon and Cambridge posts (and the rest of them for that matter :-)). That’s a pity about the heron on CSP, maybe it hit power lines on it’s final approach? Hopefully there’ll be others around to take its place.

      • Collision with a power line could have done it, they run between the two lakes.

        I informed the estate manager but he’s a pond owner, pond owners seem to be anti-heron. What came first? the heron or the garden pond?

        On the up side : had a fleeting glance of a Kingfisher, too fast for me to get a pic.
        Any tips?

      • Did you see your kingfisher on the Science Park? If so whereabouts was it, I’ll have a look myself. I’m yet to see one there even though I work there every day. I think the tip to get a photograph would be to find out if it’s a resident there and then sit undercover by the lake, near suitable kingfisher perching sites, with the longest lens you have, early in the morning, and wait for it. Let me know if you get any pictures.

      • I’ll have a go a getting some shots, hopefully it’s not just passing through but last time I saw one prior to this was about a year ago.

        As for location: coming from the lakes towards the A14 if you take the path that goes by the nursery school it was sitting on the fence by the (so far) undeveloped field. Gone before I could pull my phone out.

      • Thanks for getting back to me about this Si. If the fence is the one I’m thinking of that’s remarkable because it’s nowhere near any water, it must have been in transit to somewhere, I’d be very interested to hear if you see another one!

      • I’ll keep looking and hopefully get a pic or two.
        I probably didn’t give good directions because the fence is maybe 10 seconds flight time to the nearest lake (next to Jagex) , I don’t know anything about their feeding habits but assume they supplement the fish dinners with insects, grubs etc.

      • Their diet is entirely aquatic as far as I know, and with a brood they can require up to 100 fish a day! But they’re invariably perched over water even when they’re not feeding.

      • Thanks for the info. Fingers crossed.

  2. I love this post…the thin line between wild and domesticated is a very thin membrane indeed…we live on the fringes of that line on our property. We are very aware that fostering dependance and expectation in the local wildlife is a slippery slope and are careful to minimise our interaction whenever we can. The amazing thing is that you learn so much on the fringes, just watching/observing and tentitively interacting and it is worth the odd pollock fillet or tiny cube of cheese to get up close and see how the rest of our world works 🙂 Cheers for a wonderful post.

    • It is a thin line. And I think you’re dead right about minimising interactions with humans, but I think we’re in the position now, at least in our part of the world, where we have to interact on some level or increasing numbers of species will become extinct. But I think it’s possible to do it in such a way that creatures don’t become dependent and remain wild. I hope so anyway. The heron’s ace isn’t he? 🙂

      On a different note, I hope you guys haven’t been affected by the wild fires. Are they close to you?

      • We did have a runaway bushfire 15km away from here but the wind was blowing it in the opposite direction. We are very lucky in that we are right on the river and the wind tends to blow away from us. It has been devastating for so many people and now the mainland is suffering as well…and they say that Global Warming isn’t an issue? Pffff. You are right about the Heron, he is the bomb 😉 Should get him his own show so he will NEVER be short of a fish or two 😉

      • I think individual freak events can’t be ascribed to global warming, but they seem to be happening every week somewhere on the planet so it can’t be random. It amazes me how many ignore or deny it rather than fronting up and dealing with it. I’m glad you guys haven’t got scorched!

      • The only scorching that we are getting is from the heat and the dry. Tasmania suffers from 3 months of dry over the summer period and then 9 months of rain (usually) so we just need to find a way to afford a large water tank and we should be right. The problem is that the conditions cause the usually lush bushland to dry out and become a massive fire hazard. All it takes is one idiot flicking their cigarette butt out of the window (and there are a LOT of smokers here in Tassie) and those tinderbox conditions ignite and spread like the proverbial wildfire. Living near the river has more than one benefit and by the way, our 90 year old neighbour Glad, has a pair of herons that nest every year in the bushland behind her house 🙂

      • We’ve been seeing some scary TV footage and stills over here in the press. Fingers crossed it doesn’t blow your way!

        Have you got any pictures of Glads herons? I’d love to see them.

      • They bred and headed off but they come back every year to nest in her trees in the bushland out the back (which is right next to our property) so I will get you some shots when they come back. They spend their days fishing from rocks right at our front gate…life is good for heron’s on the Tamar River 🙂

      • I’m looking forward to seeing the pictures of your fishermen!

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