Once upon a time when I was younger, I was walking near Force Jump Waterfall in the Kentmere Valley over in the eastern Lake District. A grey heron glided into a marshy field and began to look for frogs. It was the first time I had been so close to this bird. Then it died. It just fell down in a collapsed heap. Obviously, I was dismayed – hand to mouth. It raises questions about the deaths of large birds. Not many people ever see a large bird die a natural death. Maybe a ghillie in the Scottish Highlands might see a naturally dead eagle once in a lifetime, or a walker might find a dead Great White Egret in the Somerset Marshes, but to be there when one dies on the spot – that is a very rare event.
This eerie occurrence gave me the impetus to study the heron in life and in myth. Here are some things I’ve learned about this graceful and fascinating bird with a wingspan of 6.5 feet, only a few inches less than a Golden Eagle.
Grey Herons (Ardea cinerea) are in the family Ardeidae which includes egrets and bitterns. ‘Ardea’ in Latin means ‘heron’ and ‘cinerea’ means ‘resembling ashes’. They eat fish, frogs, rats and all sorts of other food. They ‘operate’ on the seashore as well an inland. They sit in the tops of trees, stalking through marshes, often standing and staring for many minutes before striking their prey.
They have invaded urban civilisation, flying over the rooftops of housing estates in Worcester Park, London for example, or sitting on the roof of a caravan at Chichester Harbour. They are becoming like foxes in their integration with human society.
Over the past 4,000 years, herons have been hunted by humans for food, feathers and sadly, also for sport. The painting above, The Wounded Heron by George Frederic Watts, 1837 (Watts Gallery) is in the public domain.
In Combe Valley, East Sussex, where I do much of my wildlife photography, there are many herons. It is a rare day, rain or shine, when you don’t see one. In our winter-flooded valley you can see six at once all patrolling the pools and lake margins. So what are the legends behind the reality? Are there any herons in literature or Greek myths for example? Well, certainly there is one in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – it is called a ‘handsaw’! Shakespeare causes Hamlet to say in line 1460:
‘I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.’
And yes, there on page 158 of the Penguin edition of the Iliad, the goddess Pallas Athene (Roman equivalent = Minerva) sends a heron to guide the Greeks on the right path at night – Odysseus and his men could not see the heron but heard its cry in the dark. Then Odysseus praised Athene for saving him for her ‘special love’. Because Athena is the goddess of wisdom then the heron became to be known as a very wise messenger – a superintelligence. So next time you think you are watching a heron, remember that it may also be watching you, and perhaps reading your thoughts.
Those of you who love Dartmoor will be pleased to see this internet page dedicated to the Dartmoor heronry: http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/heron_moor.htm
A heronry is a colony of perches and nests – we have one in the tall trees near the end of the old Bexhill to Crowhurst railway viaduct site not far from Three Bridges and the 1066 Trail…here:
The Grey Heron lays a clutch of 4 to 5 eggs in one brood per year between January and May. Obviously because our valley floods in winter, this site is ideal for them being right at the side of the greatest flood section of the Combe Haven river – ready for plenty of common and marsh frogs in spring. Herons use the bridge handrails and perches to stare down into the Combe Haven in the early morning.
In Japan, the heron is thought of as representing calmness, determination and above all – patience. It is a solitary bird, in the sense that it does not regularly flock-feed like an ibis or avocet, but slowly stalks – attracting other hungry herons who may join it at random. Juveniles have spotted necks and no crest feathers, and their heads are pale grey rather than the black of the adult bird. Their beaks are black but turn to orange daggers as they grow.
Herons are masters of aerial flight, retracting their necks and hunching up in flight but using their huge wings to brake when landing in the marshes. When the heron looks down into a pool it must be able to see and therefore recognise itself. I have never seen a heron try to eat its own reflection. Its cry – for us and Odysseus too, is said to sound like ‘fraink’ followed by a rattle and a croak.
In China, the heron is seen as a good luck wish – ‘May your Path be Always Upward’ and white herons helped souls to get to heaven. In Egypt, the heron becomes the world creator – the Bennu Bird, Lord of the Jubilees, linked by rebirth to the Phoenix legends of Herodotus.
So we should be pleased and proud to live near so many herons and I am sure you all get great satisfaction from the peaceful observation of this superintelligent messenger as it hunts the doomed frogs of Combe Valley.