Walking around a metro lake a year ago, I noticed a relatively large bird standing on a low branch hanging out over the water. A stocky bird with a big beak, this was a black-crowned night heron, a fairly common bird, even though few of us have ever seen one.
A passerby asked what I was looking at, so I pointed out the heron, saying I thought it was a member of the heron family. He looked skeptical and walked away, shaking his head and muttering, "I'm not convinced, I'm just not convinced."
It's easy to understand his skepticism, because night herons, although the most widespread heron in the world, mostly escape our notice. And those who catch a glimpse of this elusive bird don't naturally think "heron," because night herons don't resemble the long-legged, lean water birds we're used to seeing stalking the shorelines of ponds, rivers and lakes.
In fact, if you could place a night heron alongside one of its cousins, a great blue heron or a great egret, this small, thickset bird — almost neck-less — would look like a fireplug next to its elegant cousins. (For fans of the 1960s animated sitcom "The Flintstones," think of this chunky bird as the Barney Rubble of herons.)
Still as a statue
The night heron has two habits that almost guarantee most of us don't know it's around: It does most of its hunting at night and it remains as still as a statue while waiting for prey to appear.
In fact, some years ago a friend and I were hiking when we spied a night heron a ways ahead in a shrub on a sand spit. We watched it for half an hour, but it never moved or even blinked an eye. Deciding it was trapped in some way, we bushwhacked our way to within 10 feet of the bird, a very arduous and mosquito-filled journey. The bird sprang into the air, giving one of its loud, barking squawks (tinyurl.com/pr74ncf), letting us know what it thought of humans intent on "rescuing" it from its normal routine.
Lethargy is a key hunting strategy as the bird sits hunched on a branch at water's edge, waiting patiently for a frog or fish to pass by. These herons can keep this up for hours, and often do.
At other times, a night heron will thrust its beak under water, opening and closing it rapidly to create a disturbance that may attract prey.
Nighttime is the right time
Their choice of the night shift is another good feeding strategy, because they have the shorelines to themselves then, with herons and egrets sleeping at their roosts. If night herons had to compete with their larger, day-hunting cousins for feeding territories, it's not hard to guess which birds would control more real estate. However, during breeding season, night herons may add daylight hours to their foraging schedule as they try to keep their brood and themselves fed.
At the turn of the previous century, this bird's two long plumes were highly prized as a fashion accessory and the herons were hunted nearly to extinction (as were egrets and other birds). The fact that night herons exist at all is due to efforts by the Audubon Society and others that worked to stop that era's devastating trade in heron and egret plumes.
According to the Audubon Society, the night heron population in the United States has probably declined over the past decades, primarily due to loss of habitat and factors such as water pollution. But the birds are a challenge to survey because they're such masters of stealth.
I was surprised to learn about several unexpected locations where night herons are thriving — at a number of zoos around the country. They're not zoo residents but wild birds that enjoy the accommodations. Night herons have adopted the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, setting up roosts or visiting on a daily basis. Visitors to the National Zoo are treated to the sight of 200 or more herons running to catch fish tossed by keepers twice each day.
Next time you're walking around a metro lake, one with trees along the shoreline, check the lower branches for this heron, standing hunched and motionless, waiting for a meal to pass within striking distance. If you're very lucky the sun will be shining at just the right angle to spotlight the glowing red eyes of this aptly named waterbird.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.