Getting to know the amazing green heron

By Jeanne Church

The first time I ever saw a green heron, I was vacationing in Florida. At the time, I thought all green herons must be Florida birds. I’d never seen one anywhere else before and I certainly never expected to see one in Michigan – until I did! 

Apparently, there are “resident” green herons and “migratory” green herons. Florida and a few other southern states have resident populations, but all the ones who aren’t residents start heading north in late winter and early spring to breed. The green herons here in Michigan will stay until October.

If you’ve never seen a green heron, it is comparable in size to a large crow and weighs about six ounces. Green herons have been described as small stocky birds with a deep green back, a reddish-brown neck and chest, orange or yellow eyes, and yellow to yellowish-orange legs that change to glossy orange during the breeding season. Personally, I’ve never really understood why they are even called green herons. They aren’t really green in the way that frogs are green or grass is green, so how did they get that name? 

The answer to my question came when I ran across an article that said the green on this heron’s back was an iridescence. Bingo!! An iridescent color would require sunlight to be apparent, and green herons spend most of their time in the shadowy recesses along riverbanks, streams and ponds where there is dense vegetation – and very little direct light. In that type of environment, it would be almost impossible to see any green iridescence! That said, even on the sunniest of summer days, I would not call a green heron green!

One of the most fascinating things I’ve learned about green herons is their unique ability to use tools! They are one of only a very few birds known to do this! A green heron will use tools such as crumbs, insects, earthworms, twigs or feathers as bait to lure a fish to the water’s surface. When a fish comes up to explore or nibble the heron’s bait, the green heron will plunge its head into the water and hopefully make a catch! If the bait floats away, the heron will retrieve it, reposition it, and wait until another fish comes along! One researcher observed a green heron reposition its bait 28 times before it finally caught a fish!

If a green heron happens to be having a very bad day of fishing, though, he will not go hungry. Instead, he will go looking for crayfish, aquatic insects, grasshoppers, frogs, rodents, and snakes to fill his belly. This is a very patient, adaptable and intelligent bird!

If you’ve never seen a green heron here in Michigan, there’s still time! You will need to tread softly, however, and carry a good pair of binoculars. Green herons are very secretive birds and once discovered will be easily spooked!

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