Dear readers, you will know from previous posts that when I go to visit a zoo I am usually more interested in the wild creatures than the tame ones. So it is not surprising that for some years I have been fascinated by the Grey Herons that visit the penguin and flamingo pools at London Zoo. They stand amongst the Rockhoppers and the Humboldts, confusing the tourists and no doubt costing the zoo a small fortune in herring.
These are truly wild birds – there is a heronry in the middle of the boating lake in Regent’s Park, with a dozen enormous nests. There are no signs of breeding activity just yet, but I intend to visit later in the spring to provide an update.
Herons are something of a success story, for once. There are an estimated 13,000 breeding pairs in the UK, approximately 65,000 individuals, and they are the commonest large predatory bird in the UK. Their success is largely due to the vast improvement in water quality, the same change which has benefited all manner of creatures, from trout and salmon to otters. Looking after an ecosystem like a river or a lake has positive effects for everything that uses it.
When in flight Grey Herons look to me like pterodactyls who have somehow become misplaced in time. Their presence is often announced by the angry cries of other birds, especially crows, who seem to bear herons a particular animosity.Grey Herons are tremendous fishermen, patient, fast and efficient. Such is their success that it was once believed that the feet of herons secreted a fish attractant, and so human fishermen would sometimes carry a heron’s foot for good luck. Not such good luck for the heron, obviously.
Herons will also eat amphibians and small mammals.For a while, I was Treasurer of the wonderful Culpeper Community Garden in Islington. I was told that a heron would pay an occasional visit to the garden’s pond during the time when the frogs were breeding. The bird would throw the frogs into the air one at a time, catch them in his beak and swallow them, sometimes eating twenty in a sitting. Then he would relax for a while, looking around with perfect equanimity before taking off with a few powerful wing strokes and disappearing. He only appeared when the frogs were around, and the person that I spoke to was convinced that the heron had a mental calendar of what food was available when. And who knows? Herons can live for up to twenty-five years, and strike me as quite capable of performing such a calculation.
Of course, those fine feathers don’t look after themselves, and herons spend a lot of time contorting themselves into yoga positions in order to reach those awkward feathers on their backs or under their wings. Herons have special feathers on their breasts called ‘Powder Down’ – these feathers, when crushed, produce a kind of chalk which absorbs all the fish oil, scales and other secretions that are inevitable when you eat a lot of eels and other slimy creatures. The bird spreads the powder through its feathers, and then scrapes it off with a serrated claw.
There is something very thrilling about seeing such a large bird close up.The Grey Herons at the Zoo were completely unconcerned by the human visitors, even those slightly-scruffy female ones who almost dropped their cameras in an attempt to capture their distinctive beauty. The herons only raised their heads in interest when a member of the zoo staff, wearing a distinctive green jumper, stepped into the exhibit.Surely this meant that feeding time was at hand? But alas, it was a false alarm, and the zoo keeper was just there to clean up. Normality returned, and the herons settled back into placid watchfulness.
A few years ago, I was drinking a cup of tea in the kitchen of my house in East Finchley and was gazing idly out of the kitchen window when a pair of long, dangly legs began to descend slowly towards my pond. I almost spat out my breakfast in shock. A heron! But the descent was short-lived, because no sooner had the tip of the bird’s toe broken the surface when a pair of crows appeared from nowhere, cawing and cackling and flapping and harassing the heron so much that it broke off and flew back up again, pursued across the rooftops and gaining height all the time. It must have been the shortest heron visitation in living memory, which was just as well for my frogs.
It is said that captured herons are dangerous birds, and that even the young ones will not hesitate to peck directly at the eyes of their captor if given a chance. One rash fellow who, for some reason known only to himself, grabbed a heron found that the heron took hold of his nose in a piercing grip and refused to let go. A mad dance ensued, which would probably have been quite amusing to watch were it not for the danger to all involved. The man only managed to get the heron to release its grip by strangling it. Let us hope that it taught him never to mess with a Grey Heron again.
In some parts of the country, there is a tradition that, on meeting a heron, one should tip one’s hat and wish it good morrow. How refreshing it would be to greet a wild animal in just the way that you would greet a neighbour! Because, after all, we are neighbours, and whilst the heron might be indifferent to my appearance in his territory, I am certainly very glad to have made his acquaintance.