The Wildest of Birds

by Rex Burress

They live neath the curtain

Of  fir wood and heather,

And never take hurt

In the wildest of weather...
         --Patrick Chalmers

If the mysterious "Pud-wudgies," the autumn elves created by Chalmers, are the wildest will-o’-the-wisps, the Green Heron must be one of the wildest of birds. I see the miniature herons along the Feather River, but not for long, as they are prone to go clumsily flying away the minute they think you are looking at them. There are a number of extra-shy birds, but the "little green" ranks high for exclusiveness. Perhaps that is why you seldom see them around the Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge in Oakland that is more exposed, although the Great and Snowy Egrets nest there, as well as the Black-crowned Night-Herons.

In the ornithological toss-around of bird names the Green Heron, Butorides virescens, was once called "Little Green Heron," but the "little" was dropped, even though we still have a Little Blue Heron of the southeast. "What’s the latest?" Maybe it sounds like the "Little Bedtime Stories" of Thornton Burgess! We also have a Great Blue Heron. In Missouri where I lived as a boy, my Dad called the herons "shag-pokes." Thus it is with common names ... variable.

It takes a keen eye to spot a Green Heron feeding along the edge of the river, as well as practically any pond where there might be aquatic food, since they freeze into position, often clamped to a branch, or blended into the grass, where they wait in perfect patience it would seem for food to come along. The short-looking neck is ready to spring – and it can plunge outward in an incredible stretch – usually connecting with a fish. When they are ready to vacate their position under too much scrutiny, they erupt from the edge with a ruffle of feathers and an elevated head crest, emitting a loud squawk that seems entirely out of the quiet bird’s character. They are reminiscent of the American Bittern, another shy bird of the marsh that practices camouflage by stretching its brown-streaked body in conformation with the reeds. Bitterns also take off with a loud squawk and resemble Green Herons to such an extent in habits they are sometimes called "green bitterns."

I saw a Green Heron the other morning on my early dawn neighborhood walk, a course that takes me up along Guppy Creek. The little drainage that snakes along the roadside and disappears into a culvert is fed by springs and overflow lawn watering, but it also supports mosquito fish, the "guppies" that Vector Control stocked. The heron had discovered the isolated source of food, and there one stood, perfectly still in the watercress, watching me intently, its keen eye riveted on me like an eagle watching a rabbit. The minute I looked at it – eruption! – and the disorderly take-off and uncontrollable squawk. There was no sticking around with man the unpredictable.

In the image of other wading birds like egrets and herons, the green takes to the trees when nesting, and not always near water. I was called to a foothill home once to identify a young "sharp-billed bird" that had fallen from a nest in their oak grove. It was a Green Heron. The startling thing was the lack of nearby water, other than a swimming pool, which had no fish prey, although the owners said they saw the parent birds prowling around the edge stalking invisible fish. The parents must have commuted for food to some stream, or Lake Oroville, nearly three miles away. Strange.

Although "little," the Green Heron is not the smallest member of the heron family, with the Least Bittern taking that ranking. The Least Bitterns, like the Green Herons, are migrants in spite of their awkward-appearing flight, doing most of their traveling at night, which further supports their retiring personality. Their populations are wide spread over the U.S., and inland birds, especially, retreat to southern realms in the winter where the water is open. Some hang around the California Central Valley marshes, especially a few American Bitterns, although I don’t recall seeing any Green Herons at Gray Lodge Refuge in the winter. They are more prone to be close to the coast, even in salt marsh vegetation during colder weather.

Whatever put the wild in Green Herons ... and kingfishers ... it provides a flavor of wilderness and takes us out of the tameness of civilization. That wild flavor permeating the perimeter of the river and wooded hills gives us wildlife close to home without having to trek off to faraway places for watchable wildlife. Many of those wild things come to us from migratory passageways.

Having the uniqueness of the Green Heron occupying the riverside provides a valuable component of wildlife diversity to whet our watching. The cast of characters interacting in the riverine environment is quite remarkable, and each performs its instinctive rituals according to the dictation of its inherited gene structure. It’s something you can depend on. There is a general behavior with added quirks according to the seriousness of the immediate situation. I know it is the Acorn Woodpecker flying across the river from the way it swoops along in an indefinite flight. The Northern Flicker has its peculiar way of landing on a tree branch, just as the Black Phoebe darts out from its perch, or the swallows sailing in the sky.

The cast of characters retain their individualistic style in the midst of the limited community as if proud of their way of life. The hawk and vultures soar, the waterfowl swim, the divers dive, the Bushtits scurry, the geese fly in formation, the hummingbirds dash about, and the egrets stand at attention, or go flapping off in slow-motion flight. The Green Heron will be there, stalking warily along the edge, and flopping away from scary beasts. You can depend on it!

© 2003 Rex Burress
August 26, 2003