With the widest wingspan of any British bird, apart from the golden eagle, the heron looks more like a pterodactyl than a bird when in flight. Almost a metre long and 2m wide from wing tip to wing tip, the heron (Ardea cinerea) is surely the most easily identified of all our birds and is widespread throughout the British Isles except in the most upland areas of Scotland. Roosting high in big trees, often in large colonies known as heronries. I remember one, many years ago on the Thames by Chiswick House and there is apparently one near Spalding, not far from here. Heronries can be very long lived, sometimes centuries.
Herons feed mostly on fish and you often see them standing motionless in water waiting for their prey or, more annoyingly, standing at the edge of your pond picking off the goldfish. They also eat beetles, frogs and even small mammals such as mice and rats. If they are worried they will often regurgitate their meals. They have one, (sometimes two) broods a year with a clutch of up to seven eggs and both parents hunt to feed the chicks which take a month to hatch and up to two months to fly the nest. Birds can live up to five years.
Being such a distinctive bird it is no surprise that they have lots of names and from my childhood I remember a pub called The Old Frank with a sign showing a heron. Old Frank is a common name in East Anglia and probably derives from the bird’s call – frank frank – in flight. It is also called harnser, hegri, norry-the-bogs and Johnny crane, among others.
When in flight the heron double bends its neck into a ‘s’ shape with its legs trailing behind and flies with slow, languorous flaps.
In the past, herons have been an important part of the diet of the wealthy. I guess that the fact that they nest in groups made them relatively easy harvest. Years ago, reading a book about the harsh life lived by the residents of St Kilda, I couldn’t imagine a diet of gulls and gull’s eggs. Fishy tasting fowl and eggs must be the most disgusting thing to eat and apparently heron is much the same and very indigestible, though young birds were better, or less nasty! They were pulled from the nests with a long pole and fattened for a while before being eaten. In 1465 when Lord Neville was made Archbishop of York, 400 herons were served at the banquet. Many were hunted with falcons and it was a sport of the wealthy. They continued to be eaten until the end of the 18th century. Fortunately, this giant of the air seems to be doing well at the moment and populations are increasing.
According to experts, putting a plastic heron next to your pond will not discourage other herons – it is more likely to make real ones come to visit.