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IN A HERON VILLAGE
OF all the sights and feelings of a bird lover, the most lasting, perhaps, is when he first steps from the quieter wood scenes and suddenly emerges into the very heart of a busy bird town. The eyes pop as wide and the pulse beats as fast as that of a backwoods boy when he first walks into the very midst of a modern three-ringed circus in full swing.
Fifteen miles below my home in the heart of the fir forest is a village of two hundred houses. It has an area of about three acres. Every home is a sky-scraper. Not a single house is less than a hundred and thirty feet up, and some are a hundred and sixty feet high. The inhabitants are feathered fishers. They hunt the waterways of the Columbia and the Willamette for miles. Each owns his own claim, and there's never a dispute as to possession.
It takes the biggest reserve of nerve and muscle to reach this village, but one may sit on the wooded hillside far below and watch life there in full swing. From two to five brush-heap houses, the size of a wash-tub, are carefully balanced and securely fastened in the top limbs of each tree. Gaunt, long-legged citizens stand about the airy doorways and gossip in hoarse croaks. Residents are continually coming and going, some flapping in from the feeding-ground with craws full of fish and frogs, others sweeping down the avenues between the pointed firs with a departing guttural squawk.
One of the most risky and perilous pieces of work ever done in the tree-top was accomplished here in the tall firs in getting the nest and eggs of the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias). The photographer had selected the most "climbable-looking" stronghold in the heronry, where the nearest nest was a hundred and thirty feet up. But after the long, arduous ascent, he found that both nests contained newly hatched birds. Just fifteen feet away in the branches of an adjoining tree was a nest containing four eggs. To get this, the photographer strapped himself carefully in the branches and wrapped his legs about the trunk. With a rope he lassoed the broken end of a limb on the adjoining tree, and, by slipping the cord back and forth, worked the rope up to the trunk. A slow, steady pull and the tops of the trees bent closer together. The tension became stronger and stronger between the two trees, until at four feet it looked like a huge catapult that might suddenly be sprung and shoot the climber backward into space. In another instant an aërial bridge was formed in the treetop while the photographer secured his prize.
The heronries in the Oregon forests are pretty well protected from the raids of a bird-photographer by reason of their great height from the ground. For several years we hunted for a colony of these birds, where a good series of photographs could be taken. We never found one in Oregon, but we did discover one in California last summer.
Down in the swamp regions at the lower end of San Francisco Bay is a narrow wooded belt reaching out about a mile, and it is about two hundred yards in width. When we approached this thicket we saw the trees were well loaded with nests. We skirted the edge of the belt, looking for an entrance, but to our surprise each place we tried was barred with a perfect mass of tangled bushes and trees. We crawled through in one place for a few feet, but over and through all was a network of poison oak and blackberry that we could not penetrate. There was not the sign of a path. After two hours we went to the point opposite the largest tree and decided to push and cut our way through. The first few yards we crawled on our hands and knees, pushing our cameras or dragging them behind. Unable to crawl further we had to clear a way and climb a ten-foot brush-heap. For a few yards we ducked under and wiggled along in the bed of a ditch in the mire to our knees. I never saw such a tangled mass of brush. Fallen limbs and trees of alder, swamp-maple and willow were interlaced with blackberry brier, poison oak, and the rankest growth of nettles. All the while we were assailed by an increasing mob of starving mosquitoes that went raving mad at the taste of blood. We pushed on, straining, sweating, crawling, and climbing for a hundred yards that seemed more like a mile.
We forgot it all the minute we stood under the largest sycamore. It was seven feet thick at the base and difficult to climb. But this was the centre of business activity in the heron village. The monster was a hundred and twenty feet high, and had a spread of limbs equal to its height. In this single tree we counted forty-one blue heron nests and twenty-eight Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax nævius) nests; sixty-nine nests in one tree. In another tree were seventeen of the larger nests and twenty-eight of the smaller.
The great blue heron or "crane" is one of the picturesque sights of every fish-pond and along the bank of every river and lake in the country. I look for him along the shallow sand-bars and sloping banks, as I look for the background of green trees. He is always the solitary fisher. He is the bit of life that draws the whole to a focus. Watch him, and he stands as motionless as a stick. He is patient. A minnow or frog swims past, and there is a lightning flash of that pointed bill as he pins him a foot below the surface. Disturb him and he deliberately spreads a pair of wings that fan six feet of air and dangles his long legs to the next stand just out of range.
Nature has built the heron in an extremely practical way. She dressed him in colors of sky and water. She did not plant his eyes in the top of his head as she did the woodcock, because he is not likely to be injured by enemies from above; but she put them right on the lower sloping side of his head so he could look straight down at his feet without the slightest side turn. She let his legs grow too long for perching conveniently on a tree—just so he could wade in deep enough to fish. She gave him a dagger-shaped bill at the end of a neck that was both long enough to reach bottom as well as to keep his eyes high above water, so he could see and aim correctly at the creature below the surface.
is said that occasionally a pair of great blue herons will build an
isolated nest, but I never found one. The heron likes a remote
fishing preserve of his own, but he loves to live in a small village
community, to which he can return each evening and enjoy the social
life among his neighbors and dwell in mutual protection.
He is a remarkable bird in adapting himself to circumstances. In a bird of such long legs and of such proportions, one would naturally think his nesting place would he on the ground. In the lake region of southern Oregon we did find the great blue heron nesting on the ground, surrounded on all sides by gulls, cormorants, pelicans, and terns. But in other portions of our country a colony of these same birds will select the tallest firs, deep back in the forest, or the sycamores, willows, and maples in the midst of a swamp.
We made the first trip to the heronry on April 21st, and found that most of the nests contained eggs. There were about seven hundred nests in the whole colony, of which the larger number were black-crowned night herons'. The great blues and the night herons occupied the same trees, nesting side by side. The larger nests were built almost entirely in the tops of the sycamores, while the night herons set their platform nests at the very upturned tips of the sycamore limbs and in the lower surrounding willows and alders.
When I first climbed in among the nests of a smaller tree with my camera, it sounded as if I were in the midst of a gigantic hen-house. Some of the birds were clucking over their eggs that were soon to be hatched; others were cackling over newly laid eggs and squawking at being disturbed; others were wrangling and squabbling, so that there was a continual clattering fuss above which one had to yell his loudest to be heard. I sat astraddle a limb with my note-book in hand. About me, seemingly almost within reach, I counted thirty-six sets of blue eggs. I was high above the tops of the alders and willows. Set all about below in the background of green were the platforms, each holding several eggs of blue. The trees were dotted in every direction. I counted over four hundred eggs in sight.
The black-crowned night heron is a very different looking bird from the great blue. It has a shiny black patch on the top of the head, and a gray body with a black back. The short but thick neck and short legs are just the opposite of the blue heron. The night heron, as the name signifies, is not seen or heard much during the day unless you visit one of their colonies, which is placed generally in some almost inaccessible swamp. As long as these birds can find some protected place to nest they are sure to remain in spite of our civilization, for a colony of several hundred of them still nest in the maples of a dense swamp only a few miles from New York City.
Great blue herons perched lazily in the tops of the trees. Looking in one direction I counted over a hundred of them. They were sailing in continually and departing. The night herons fluttered about in a jerky, labored flight, lighting in the willows and hovering over their nests.
A night heron's or, as often called, a "squawk's" nest looks to me like a mere botch. Some of them are not hollowed in the least, but just rough platforms. In a wind the eggs would roll off if the mother did not sit to hold them on. There is not much trouble after the eggs are hatched, for the youngsters seem to kick themselves loose from the shell with one foot, while they wrap the long angular toes of the other about the nearest twig.
On our first trip to the heronry, when the nests contained eggs, we selected one or two of the best and most available to get a good series of pictures showing the growth of the young. Most all the night heron nests contained four eggs. The eggs seemed to hatch in regular order about two days apart. When we photographed the same nest later we found it held three frowzy-headed youngsters and one egg. On our third trip, the growth, both in size and ugliness, was quite apparent. On our next trip we found the nest deserted.
The next time I sat in the tree-top the place sounded more like a big duck ranch. Above all the squawks of the parents there was a steady quacking clatter of the hundreds of young herons, that never ceased. The sound grew more intense in spots, as here and there a mother swept in from the feeding-ground and fed her children. As I sat watching, an old blue heron sailed in and lit on a branch above her nest in the adjoining tree. The three youngsters twisted themselves into joyful shapes as the mother stepped awkwardly along the limb. Each reached up in full height to grasp her long bill. She sat on the nest, calmly looking about. The young continued to catch her long beak and pull it part way down, trying to make her feed them. When she got ready she disgorged a mess of partially digested fish down the throat of each nestling and left as leisurely as she came. In another case where the young were older, I saw the mother bird disgorge into the nest. The mass of undigested fish in her craw seemed to form into small portions and come up as the cud of a cow does, and each youngster pitched into the meal with a vigor and energy that would have amazed a litter of young pigs.
When you climb anywhere near a nest after the young birds have had a good meal, they will begin to "unswallow" as fast as they have gobbled it down. On account of this habit, especially common among night herons, we found it always safe to keep out of the way as much as possible, or at least not approach a nest full of young birds from below.
In order to study the life of the herons and get some pictures early in the morning before the wind sprung up so strong that we could hardly hold ourselves in the treetop, which it had a habit of doing at that season of the year, we camped at the heronry all one night. At the south end of the heron jungle is a hay-field, where we took up our quarters. We had no trouble in keeping awake most of the night to study heron habits. The blue herons as well as the squawks, or night herons, seemed to keep busy most of the night. As some one has said, it sounded as if several hundred Indians were trying to throttle each other. Then the mosquitoes and frogs were more active after dark. We crawled into a haycock and covered ourselves up, as much to get rid of bloodthirsty insects as to keep warm. At daylight we felt as much comfort in crawling out to get rid of burrs and stickers as we had the night before in crawling in to get away from mosquitoes.
A young night heron is well adapted to climbing from limb to limb by reason of his long angling toes and the ability to hook his neck or bill over a limb and draw himself up as a parrot does. Not so with the young blue herons; they are as awkward about the limbs of the trees as their parents are stately in moving through the air. When overbalanced on a limb they often fall to the ground.
young birds of both species seem instinctively to know that falling
from the trees to the ground below means death. Not because they are
hurt in the least by the fall, but because the old birds never
descend to the ground below the nest tree. The ground under the
trees was strewn with the dead bodies of young birds. The young are
fed only in the tree-top, and those below starve in the very sight
of their parents.
Full-grown young Night Heron
Several times we saw young night herons hanging dead in the branches of the trees. In one tree we found two of these youngsters hanging side by side only a foot apart. In walking about the limbs, the larger of the two birds had caught its foot in a crotch and hung itself head downward. That, in itself, was not unusual, but the second bird hung by the neck only a few inches away. It seems that this smaller heron had hung himself dead rather than fall to the ground; he had fallen or overbalanced on the small limb and, as is the custom, had hooked his chin over the branch to keep from falling to the ground. His clutched right foot showed that the death struggle had been a reaching and stretching to gain the limb. The head was not caught between the branches as was the other bird's foot, but was simply hooked over the bend in the twig. Had he thrown his head back a little he would have dropped to the ground. We demonstrated this by turning the bill to an angle of forty-five degrees, and the body dropped to the bushes twenty feet below. How the bird could have held the rigid position of the neck throughout its death struggle I could not understand, unless it was a case where the force of instinct was strong even to death.
The last trip we made to the heronry we found the limbs of the sycamores as well loaded with young herons as a good apple tree is loaded with fruit. The moment we started to climb the tree with our cameras was the signal for the breaking loose of a squawking bedlam. Young squawks jabbered all sorts of epithets from the nest edge and retreated along the limbs as we drew nearer. The young blue herons savagely disputed every foot of the way. They aimed a fusillade of stabs at us from all sides, and we took great care not to get within reach of their weapons. When we did get into the tree-top it took some little time to oust a pair of enraged youngsters so that we could sit in their nest and aim the camera at the birds about.
It was considerable trouble for us to get a series of heron pictures. We suffered and scratched for weeks with a miserable rash from the poison oak, but we made five long trips to the heron village. The last trips through the jungle were not as difficult as the first; we had the beginning of a path and we took poison oak preventives: gloved our hands and veiled our faces. But it was worth it all just to get a clear idea of what life is in a big heronry. It was a sight for the soul just to watch the great blue herons; the long, slow wing-beats as they flapped in from the feeding-grounds; then the picture of quiet restfulness as they lounged about their nests after the day's work.
THE HERON FAMILY
The herons are wading birds that may be found along the banks of rivers, ponds, and through the marshes. The Great Blue Heron is a bird of great size, about four feet in length, with long neck and legs. With long, spearlike bill, the bird wades stealthily watching for fish. It has a heavy flight, moving along with big, slowly flapping wings. The Night Herons are much smaller, only half the size of a blue heron, and may be recognized by the stout bill and short, thick neck.
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias): Male and female, upper parts, bluish-gray; top of head white with long, black crest; feathers about neck, long and loose; shoulders, black striped with gray; under parts, streaked with black and white; thighs and edge of wings, cinnamon-brown. Ranges through North America at large and can be recognized by its large size and long legs. Nests in colonies, generally in tall trees. Three or four large eggs of bluish-green.
Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax navius), Squawk: Male and female, crown and back, black; wings and tails ashy-gray; forehead and throat, white, shading into light gray on side, and under parts. Common summer resident on Pacific and Atlantic Coast, arriving in April and staying till October. Nest, a mere platform of sticks in the tree-top. Eggs, three or four, pale sea-green.