Great Blue Herons and a solemn tragedy

July 5, 2014 

COURTESY OF RONNIE BLACKWELL A beautiful Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

They are called Great Blue Herons because the birds are the largest species in their genus. And they are blue -- except when they are not blue.

Great Blue Herons come in quite a variety. White morphs seem to be more prevalent the further south you go. And in The Florida Keys, there is an interesting intergrade of a dark blue and white bird called the Wurdemann's Great Blue Heron.

Almost any Mississippi kid can readily identify the tallest bird on the beach as the Great Blue Heron. But when these big guys begin to mingle with the lesser lights of the Heron and egret world, things can get a littler fuzzy. All of the taller wading birds such as Great Egrets, Little Blue Herons, and Reddish Egrets, including the Reddish Egrets can be mistakenly labeled as a Great Blue. And I promise you that sorting wading birds is much easier than working for a living.

You might be wondering why I'm writing about birds that most my readers know better than I do. Well, it's never stopped me before, has it?

It was in was early February of this year. I came to the Coast with my fellow Hattiesburg birders, and I was astounded with the mix of sun, fog, with no idea where I was going. The shifting glare and the wind was very disorienting. I found myself drifting across the beach, almost blind by the bright fog! Finally I stopped and sat down on a curb.

I could sense people walking past me in the bright, blinding glare and suddenly I realized that the people walking by me were young Great Blue Herons! They seemed to be walking with a purpose, turning to march single-file into the glare. It seemed like a good idea, so I followed behind. Soon we found our other half of the party.

As our tired little band of birders crossed the highway, I was tired and thirsty. But I couldn't help noticing the queue of tall gangly boys huffing their skateboards across the median.

I don't know, but I believe that those skaters and young Herons drifted north to the Popps Ferry causeway. My friends and I haunted those same marshes an age ago. We fished into the night, gigging flounders and catching crabs. And yes, we had our tagalong herons that were happy to clean up after us.

We didn't know then that many of those were doomed by our actions. The Herons that came clamoring for scraps may well have been done in by what we thought of as good deeds.

Great Blue Herons are wild and dangerous birds. They kill prey for a living. If you came upon a human stalking it's breakfast with a foot-long knife in its hand, you would probably be careful. But the cute Great Blue's beak is just as deadly.

When we become too familiar with wildlife, it is often wildlife that suffers.

But last week while I was visiting my family of friends in Central Florida, Scott Hawkins, my sports editor, received this message from Renee Skalij:

Hi Scott,

I wanted to bring something to your attention. I was walking down Causeway Drive (Popps Ferry Causeway Park in Biloxi) last weekend.

A lot of people fish on the old Causeway bridge. Unfortunately, I often see people feeding Blue Herons. The Blue Herons hang out and wait for food. Last weekend someone ran over one of the Blue Herons. This is so upsetting. The last time I checked, there are not any signs warning people not to feed the wildlife. I feel like signs should be put up and the area patrolled (by the police) for such behavior... Sad, isn't it?

Yes, Renee, it is.

Ronnie Blackwell is a poet, author, and bird-watcher currently living in Hattiesburg. You can contact Ronnie at RonnieBlackwell@gmail.com.

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