There’s always something magical about spotting a heron at the water’s edge (at least for me). They are elegant and graceful, poised and stately. They stand like statues watching for prey. Then, when they’re ready to strike, it’s lighting fast. It’s as if their necks are spring loaded. As it turns out, they kind of are.
Herons have special neck vertebrae that allow them to curl their necks into an S-shape. They do this when flying, but also when hunting. The curled neck allows them to strike quickly from a distance with incredible force. The unsuspecting fish or frog or small mammal never knows what hit ‘em. Sometimes herons will grab their prey in their beaks. Other times they simply impale them. Stealth and powerful, herons can also hunt both day and night thanks to special photoreceptors in their eyes that give them night vision.
These stately birds are also fastidious about keeping clean. But they don’t just splash around in the water to do this. They have specialized downy chest feathers that grow continually and fray. To wash, herons crumble these feathers into dust and then use that “powder down” like a washcloth. They comb it over their bodies using a claw on their middle toes which helps absorb and remove silt, oils, and fish slime on their feathers as they preen.
Interestingly herons nest in colonies that can number 500 birds. I find this interesting because I’ve only ever seen them one at a time! However, a little bit of Googling has revealed that there’s a “heronry” (new word!) near me. And, nesting season is here!