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A GREAT BLUE HERON.
THE watcher of birds in the bush soon discovers that they have individual as well as race characteristics. They are not things, but persons, — beings with intellect, affections, and will, — and a strong specific resemblance is found to be consistent with no small measure of personal variation. All robins, we say, look and act alike. But so do all Yankees; yet it is part of every Yankee’s birthright to be different from every other Yankee. Nature abhors a copy, it would seem, almost as badly as she abhors a vacuum. Perhaps, if the truth were known, a copy is a vacuum.
I walked down the bay shore of Cape Cod one summer morning, and at a certain point climbed the steep cliff to the railway track, meaning to look into a large cranberry meadow where, on previous visits, I had found a few sandpipers and plovers. Near one end of the perfectly level, sand-covered meadow was a little pool, and my first glance in that direction showed me a great blue heron wading about its edge. With as much quietness as possible I stole out of sight, and then hastened up the railway through a cut, till I had the sun at my back and a hill between me and the bird. Then I began a stealthy approach, keeping behind one object after another, and finally going down flat upon the ground (to roll in the soil is an excellent method of cleansing one’s garments on Cape Cod) and crawling up to a patch of bayberry bushes, the last practicable cover.
Here let me say that the great blue heron is, as its name implies, a big bird, standing almost as high as an ordinary man, and spreading its wings for nearly or quite six feet. Its character for suspiciousness may be gathered from what different writers have said about it. “He is most jealously vigilant and watchful of man,” says Wilson, “so that those who wish to succeed in shooting the heron must approach him entirely unseen, and by stratagem.” “Extremely suspicious and shy,” says Audubon. “Unless under very favorable circumstances, it is almost hopeless to attempt to approach it. To walk up towards one would be a fruitless adventure.” Dr. Brewer’s language is to the same effect, — “At all times very vigilant and difficult of approach.”
This, then, was the bird which I now had under my field-glass, as I lay at full length behind the friendly bayberry bushes. Up to this point, for aught that appeared, he was quite unaware of my espionage. Like all the members of his family that I have ever seen, he possessed so much patience that it required much patience to watch him. For minutes together he stood perfectly still, and his movements, as a rule, were either so slow as to be all but imperceptible, or so rapid as almost to elude the eye. Boys who have killed frogs — which was pretty certainly my heron’s present employment — will need no explanation of his behavior. They know very well that, if the fatal club is to do its work, the slowest kind of preliminary motion must be followed by something like a flash of lightning.
I watched the bird for perhaps half an hour, admiring his handsome blue wings as now and then he spread them, his dainty manner of lifting his long legs, and the occasional flashing stroke of his beak. My range was short (for a field-glass, I mean), and, all in all, I voted it “a fine show.”
When I wearied of my position I rose and advanced upon the heron in full sight, expecting every moment to see him fly. To my astonishment he held his ground. Down the hillside I went, nearer and nearer, till I came to a barbed-wire fence, which bounded the cranberry field close by the heron’s pool. As I worried my way through this abominable obstruction, he stepped into a narrow, shallow ditch and started slowly away. I made rapidly after him, whereupon he got out of the ditch and strode on ahead of me. By this time I was probably within twenty yards of him, so near that, as he twisted his long neck every how and then, and looked at me through his big yellow eyes, I began to wonder whether he might not take it into his head to turn the tables upon me. A stab in the face with that ugly sharp beak would have been no laughing matter; but I did not believe myself in any danger, and quickened my steps, being now highly curious to see how near the fellow I could get. At this he broke into a kind of dog-trot, very comical to witness, and, if I had not previously seen him fly a few yards, I should have supposed him disabled in the wing. Dr. Brewer, by the way, says that this bird is “never known to run, or even to walk briskly;” but such negative assertions are always at the maker’s risk.
He picked up his legs at last, for I pressed him closer and closer, till there could not have been more than forty or fifty feet between us; but even then he settled down again beside another pool, only a few rods further on in the same meadow, and there I left him to pursue his frog-hunt unmolested. The ludicrousness of the whole affair was enhanced by the fact, already mentioned, that the ground was perfectly flat, and absolutely without vegetation, except for the long rows of newly planted cranberry vines. As to what could have influenced the bird to treat me thus strangely, I have no means of guessing. As we say of each other’s freaks and oddities, it was his way, I suppose. He might have behaved otherwise, of course, had I been armed; but of that I felt by no means certain at the time, and my doubts were strengthened by an occurrence which happened a month or so afterward.
I was crossing the beach at Nahant with a friend when we stole upon a pair of golden plovers, birds that both of us were very happy to see. The splendid old-gold spotting of their backs was plain enough; but immature black-bellied plovers are adorned in a similar manner, and it was necessary for us to see the rumps of our birds before we could be sure of their identity. So, after we had scrutinized them as long as we wished, I asked my companion to put them up while I should keep my glass upon their backs and make certain of the color of their rumps as they opened their wings. We were already within a very few paces of them, but they ran before him as he advanced, and in the end he had almost to tread on them.
The golden plover is not so unapproachable as the great blue heron, I suppose, but from what sportsmen tell me about him I am confident that he cannot be in the habit of allowing men to chase him along the beach at a distance of five or six yards. And it is to be added that, in the present instance, my companion had a gun in his hand.
Possibly all these birds would have behaved differently another day, even in what to us might have seemed exactly the same circumstances. Undoubtedly, too, it is easier, as an almost universal rule, to approach one or two birds than a considerable flock. In the larger body there are almost certain to be a few timorous souls, — a few wider-awake and better instructed souls, let us rather say, — who by their outcries and hasty flight will awaken all the others to a sense of possible danger. But it is none the less true, as I said to begin with, that individual birds have individual ways. And my great blue heron, I am persuaded, was a “character.” It would be worth something to know what was passing behind those big yellow eyes as he twisted his neck to look once more at the curious fellow — curious in two senses — who was keeping after him so closely. Was the heron curious, as well as his pursuer? Or was he only a little set in his own way; a little resentful of being imposed upon; a little inclined to withstand the “tyrant of his fields,” just for principle’s sake, as patriots ought to do? Or was he a young fellow, in whom heredity had mysteriously omitted to load the bump of caution, and upon whom experience had not yet enforced the lesson that if a creature is taller and stronger than you are, it is prudent to assume that he will most likely think it a pleasant bit of sport to kill you? It is nothing to the credit of humankind that the sight of an unsuspicious bird in a marsh or on the beach should have become a subject for wonder.