Herons grace local skies

Many city-dwellers miss out on the host of interesting water birds which call Pennsylvania home.

Living relatively close to water, Canadian Geese are a common sight flying over my house and yard. Flying in their characteristic echelon formation, I often hear their squawks and the batting of their wings before I see them.

A group of ducks, both Mallards and the domesticated White Pekin, are seen wandering about the Bells Gap Run at the Bellwood-Antis Community Park. Those smaller numbers in more natural settings like the community park make for a less overwhelmed environment (numerically and ecologically) like exists at the pond at Penn State Altoona.

Perhaps the most impressive of water birds, though, is the Great Blue Heron. It gets its name from its bluish gray feathers, but may be even more distinctive because of its size. They can grow to four and half feet with wing spans over six feet.

For as large as they are, I find them to be amazingly graceful and surprisingly swift. I encounter one every month or so along the Little Juniata, the Heron flying ten feet above the serpentine path of the river as I ride my bicycle down the parallel River Road toward Tipton. Even at 20-plus miles per hour, I struggle to keep the Heron in view for much longer than a quarter mile.

Herons are also known for their curved necks, making them easier to identify from a distance. My family had a chance to see one far above the Little Juniata the evening of July 4 when some revelers got carried away with deafening fireworks. Startled by the loud pyrotechnics, the heron flew to the top of a tree about 400 feet from our house. We were able to spot that curved neck even from that distance.

Though their size, shape and love of watery environments would seem to make them a relative of the crane, herons are actually in the pelican family. Herons and egrets are actually the same group of birds; only the common names are different.

Herons are also closely related to cormorants. Though supposedly a coastal bird, we’ve noticed a few of the slightly smaller cormorants in our yard, too. Like geese, their unique call is often noticed before they’re seen.

All these pelican-family members love fish and use their pointy beaks, quick reflexes, and long necks to grab fish, sometimes quite deeply below the surface of the water. Herons’ beaks are so sharp, they can actually harpoon fish to capture and eat them, too.

Even in these days of stressed environments, the population of herons has increased modestly. Part of their vibrancy is related to their wide geographic range, from Alaska to Mexico.

They’re also not particularly picky eaters, as they’ll eat small mammals as well as fish and smaller birds. But could it be possible that our efforts to reduce sediments and nutrients, decrease hazardous chemicals, and protect habitats are beginning to pay some dividends as well?

Heron populations will decline when habitat is degraded or eliminated by development. Herons are remarkably adaptable, but when their habitat disappears, the food sources disappear, too. In response, urban planners have increasingly tried to pay attention to preserving wetland and riverside environments in urban and suburban settings.


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