If you want to see the breeding season at its best, a heron is the place to go. The gray heron of Northern Europe and its American cousin the great blue heron have a wingspan of about 6 feet (1.8 m). Their nests are in disarray. And their fuzzy chicks resemble Muppet pterodactyls of the sort Jim Henson may have designed in a moment of anarchic genius.
The heron in my local park is not large. But mating pairs still occupy all 11 nesting sites in thickets on an island in the lake. There is always something happening there. Adults may repeat the courtship rituals that were fuller in January, pulling out their Cruella de Vil crests and presenting gifts to partners (“Honey! Another twig? How thoughtful!”). Others fly in to feed chicks, who immediately stalk their parents with pleading calls that sound like two spades clattering against each other. Larger fry venture onto nesting edges to flap their wings.
Herons are landmarks for the birth of modern conservation and natural entertainment. Notable women on both sides of the Atlantic got the party going with campaigns against the trade in wild bird feathers, especially egret and heron feathers. Their premise was that a hat with bits of dead bird stuck to it was frankly inappropriate.
Their deeper message was that humans have a duty of care to nature, which precludes the slaughter of wild animals for decoration or specimen collection. That view, now widespread, was radical at the time. The feather trade was responsible for the deaths of about 200 million wild birds a year at its peak. “People thought nature was endless,” says Tessa Boase, whose book on the wonderfully named conservationist Etta Lemon chronicles the early years of what became the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Emily Williamson co-founded this in Manchester in 1889 after the British Ornithologists Union rejected her application for membership because she was a woman. The biggest publicity grab under the powerful Lemon was the parading of pictures of a hunters-ravaged egret colony on sandwich boards across London. A membership of around 1 million now makes the RSPB the UK’s largest conservation organization.
Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall separately founded the forerunner of the America’s Audubon Society in 1896 to pursue parallel goals in Boston. The name honors the pioneering ornithologist whose great book The Birds of America beautifully portrays what the fuss was about. These were the spectacular breeding plumes of birds such as the blue heron, the great egret and the snowy heron.
Climate change is moving egrets north in the US and Europe, according to Jim Kushlan of Heron Conservation. Little egrets have been nesting in the UK since 1996. They often build colonies in the same trees as herons, but lower. There are pros and cons. The sword-like beaks of herons provide terrifying protection against nest predators such as crows and magpies. But breeding herons also shower guano on everything underneath.
Egrets now frequent some of the same garden ponds as herons—a sign for me to invade your private sadness if you’ve ever come out optimistically from an aquarist with a bag of fancy goldfish in hand. As for your local herons, you were just the Uber Eats delivery guy.
These birds catch fish. They’ve had 55 million years of evolution to get good at it. Ever the peacemaker, I hoped my research would show that herons feed much more on wild fish than on ornamental fish. But when I asked veteran Lea Valley ornithologist Paul Roper what prey chicks regurgitate when he rings the bell, he cheerfully replied, “They’re mostly goldfish.”
Herons were themselves a menu item at royal Tudor banquets. Today, killing herons is illegal. Yet Tory MP Alan Clark described this in his scabious diaries and, villainous as he was, it brought him to tears. Keeping them from garden ponds is difficult. They can pierce nets with their beaks. They have been seen carelessly perching on plastic decoys intended to scare them away.
Their premise was that a hat with bits of dead bird stuck to it was frankly inappropriate
But Rob Whitell of the British Koi Keepers Society tells me that his members complain little about herons eating their expensive decorative carp. “We remove vulnerabilities when we design a pond,” he says. Koi pools are often surrounded by low walls topped with acrylic panels, herons are wary of perching on them. Placing pergolas nearby makes it difficult for the birds to land and take off.
Without recommending it, Whitell reports that nervous fish keepers can purchase a device intended to spray water herons when they refract a beam of light. I know that if I installed one, I’d be the only organism in the yard to ever spray it.
By the way, the herons are welcome among the few remaining sticklebacks in my wildlife pond. I enjoy seeing these prehistoric looking birds in the early mornings every now and then. They have survived hungry Tudor royals. They have survived Victorian hatters. They even outlived Alan Clark MP. They will outlive our own generation too, if we heed the message from Williamson, Lemon, Hemenway and Hall.
Jonathan Guthrie is head of Lex
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This post How the Heron Heralded the Modern Conservation Movement was original published at “https://www.ft.com/content/ed567cf0-794d-4f40-8cf5-872b31a9887b”