Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

August 17, 2013

Little Green Contortionist

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:26 pm

My usual relationship with Green Herons can be categorized into two types: fleeting glimpses as the bird flushes out of the cattails or distant glimpses as it squawks overhead during the breeding season. These little herons are secretive and cautious creatures.  Needless to say, this limits one to remote observation. The Green tends to spend a whole lot of time doing nothing between those bouts of fleeing and squawk flying because they are stealth hunters. Watching one through a pair of binoculars can be like watching corn grow because they play statue all the time.

Recently I was able to approach a Green Heron and actually watch it do something other than the above described behavior.  The bird was in a heavily used public park (Elizabeth Park in Trenton) and obviously desensitized to human presence. We were together in the full sunlight of late afternoon and the observee was well aware of the observer.

Yes, it did play extended bouts of statue.  In typical Green Heron style the bird selected a low Black Willow branch about a foot above the water and, leaning slightly forward, stared intently at the surface.  After what seemed like 24 hours, the heron lunged forward with a lightening motion of its neck and nearly fell off the perch.  An extended bout of lip smacking indicated that it had nailed some small unseen tidbit.

Apparently satisfied for the moment, the small heron re-positioned itself further up on the branch and entered into a series of stretching and preening moves. Like a baseball player contorting in the batter box in preparation for his time at bat, it engaged every possible muscle and pose.  In so doing it demonstrated a few key heron traits.

The bird in question was probably an independent juvenile entering into adult plumage. The back feathers still retained the brownish scalloped look of a younger bird. There was none of the greenish iridescence displayed by the adult. Granted, the species is never really “green” enough to justify the name but to be fair; the original given name was Green-backed Heron. This referred to the reflected color of the bird’s back in the light of a full sun.  Rufous Heron might better name due to the bright red-brown neck coloration, but no one asked me (for good reason- I once had a pet rabbit named Grange and a Hamster called Twirly, so my naming ability is definitely suspect).

This non-green Green Heron began by aligning a few lower neck feathers with its beak. Then, it fanned its left wing in full extension over the back and paralled by an out-stretched left leg. The backward pointing toe (the anisodactyl toe, if you want a “word for the day”) was brought forward. The right wing and leg were exercised in a mirror manner.

The effort to scratch the back of his head caused the bird to flare a prominent crest – giving it a much more heron-like appearance.  The middle toe of all herons is equipped with a neat little comb consisting of a notched toenail.  Our little Green Heron was putting this so-called pectinate claw (another “word of the day” to use tomorrow) into action to neaten and de-louse the hard-to-reach head feathers.

Another very heron-like thing exhibited by this bird was revealed by the distinctive crooked neck. Green Herons have very long necks but they are rarely seen with them fully up unless flustered (such as in the above photo). Otherwise they fold them back into an “s” shape and, because the bend is covered by long neck feathers, they can virtually appear as no-necked. This neck crook, or kink, is located above the center point. Internally it consists of a few elongated neck vertebrae (the 5th, 6th, and 7th for you chiropractors out there) and a network of supporting tendons. With such an adaptation the Green can propel the folded neck into rapid act by using this as a pivot point.

As if to punctuate the whole yoga session, the heron finally performed the “neck out and low followed by an upward get-up-in-the morning bringing together of the elbows while held over the back.”  This was by far the most satisfying move and one which insured that the bird’s day would be pain free from heron in.


  1. Is it my imagination, or are you growing, “punnier” as time passes. “from heron in” may have been the height of something? I do love it.

    Comment by Karren — August 25, 2013 @ 7:05 pm

  2. I try to start my on-line day reading something about nature and your posts are the best. Always funny, always wonderfully illustrated, not to mention educational. Therefore, I’m trying to subscribe so I know when there’s a new one.

    Comment by Bluebell — September 26, 2013 @ 11:21 am

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