Flock of facts: Indiana home to 10 different kinds of herons

By Joe Whitfield

In my list of favorite birds, the great blue heron is near the top.

Worldwide there are 62 members of this family, while 10 can be found in Indiana. The ones found here are the American bittern, least bittern, great blue heron, great egret, snowy egret, large blue heron, cattle egret, green heron, black-crowned night heron and the yellow-crowned night heron. I’ve only seen one green heron around here, and that was at Beckenholdt Park back in the swamp area.

The largest heron in the world in the goliath heron, which can get 60 inches tall. Don’t expect to see one unless you travel to Africa, however. The smallest is the little bittern that comes in at about 12 inches.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s we came close to wiping out some of these birds. Why? Because of ladies’ fashions, which at the time required the plumage as a fashion statement. In 1903, bird hunters were paid $32 an ounce for feathers, which required at least four herons or egrets per ounce. In 1902 at one London auction, 3,000 pounds were sold, which if you do the math comes to 192,000 birds killed for the feathers. This was when the Audubon Society was formed, specifically as the result of the objections of the people to killing these birds for fashion.

The great blue heron has gone by many names over the years, including: Indian hen, Indian pullet and blue cranky.

Here’s a few items you can throw out at your next staff meeting when the boss starts rambling. The eyes of a great blue heron have a mechanism that allows it to adjust from telescopic to magnifying almost instantly. The mechanism also allows for underwater viewing.

When it comes to eating, the heron does not like living food and will kill its catch before swallowing it head-first. Herons also will feed in meadows and consume mice, shrews, ground squirrels, toads, frogs, lizards, grasshoppers and dragonflies. It will go where the food is.

While most people realize that they are solitary animals, they will gather in groups three times a year. These three times are northern migration, breeding and southern migration. During the breeding season, they will gather in rookeries, or breeding groups (there is one south east of Shelbyville), where they perform courtship rituals including dances and flying around. The courtship area can be up to half a mile wide and two football fields in length.

Herons do not mate for life, and once the chicks are raised they go on their separate ways. The young males will not breed for the first two years and will sometimes wait for three.

The nest can be up to four feet wide and two feet deep. The eggs are bluish, and there can be up to seven laid at a time. The couples take turns sitting and turning the eggs while the other goes out to hunt. Incubation takes around 28 days. The eggs generally hatch in the order laid. This gives the advantage to the older chicks. The older ones get a head start on the others.

Once the chicks are born it takes about six weeks for them to be ready to go out on their own. Both parents take turns feeding the chicks by hunting, then regurgitating the food for them. The survival rate for chicks is about 31 percent.

As the chicks get older, the parents start to bring food less often or in smaller quantities; when they think the time is right, the parents no longer bring them food and the chicks are ready to go out, find hunting areas and begin life on their own.

Joe Whitfield is a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.