Everyone knows the story of the phoenix, a bird that dies or is burned but then rises again from the ashes. It is one of the best known bird myths of the western world. But did you know that the Egyptian hieroglyph for the bird appears to be a heron or egret? What luck to find this bird breeding in the trees bordering our preserves. Throughout North America the green heron (Butorides virescens) is the most widely distributed of all herons. Although there is hardly a stream, pond, or forest-lined shoreline where they may not be found, these birds are listed as uncommon and local. After breeding most disperse to search for food and migrate south for the winter. However, their behavior is changing and it is possible to find them here year-round! Finding not one but two nests adjacent to our Minthorn Springs wetland in Milwaukie indicates that food availability is high and that calm prevails!
Green herons favorite meals include minnows, catfish, carp, goldfish (perhaps from a suburban pond), bass, eels, crayfishes, crickets, katydids, dragonflies, damselflies, water bugs, diving beetles—also earthworms, small snakes, snails, mice, and salamanders. In addition, these small birds love to hunt frogs at the edge of beaver ponds. And yes, there are active beavers at this site! It is worth noting that bird diversity is greater at active beaver ponds!
The green heron might not be as cranky as its cousin, the great blue heron, but it does have a trick or two up its feathers. Herons have a ‘stand and wait’ approach to hunting. Using its long, pointed bill for the precise spearing necessary to hunt in daylight hours, herons wait in ambush for unsuspecting prey to wander within striking distance. You may have noticed their almost catlike stealth as they put each foot down with care.
A green heron will sometimes throw an insect, or even a berry, leaf, or twig on the water and wait for curious fish to come by. In the late afternoon, the heron returns to the nest usually 10-15ft up in hardwoods. The nest is a platform constructed by the female out of sticks procured and presented to her by the male. How do you locate a green heron nest? Well, it’s truly simple. You keep your eyes out for POOP! Lots of it. Then you look up. Herons and egrets often lay more eggs than the number of chicks they can feed. In this region that is usually 4-5 blue-green eggs with first flights of young 21-23 days after hatching. We were ecstatic when we found 3 freshly hatched eggshells on the grassy lawn! Even a small marsh in a built-up area can serve them well.
These little chicks could have many names: little green heron, fly-up-the-creek, swamp squaggin, garcita verde (Spanish), ho-ho (Mopan Mayan), Poor Joe (Creole), and petit héron vert (French). But more importantly, remember as more and more people seek out birds in their natural habitat, the behavior of each individual becomes more important. Always consider the welfare of the birds especially at roosting or nesting sites. Save your celebrations of sightings for the ride or walk home! Avoid making a disturbance and encourage others to tread lightly.
Written By: Heather Chapin