Tuning Up - Autumn 2022

Birds of a Feather

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It’s not hard to see ourselves in the majestic, mysterious great blue heron

By Danusha Laméris | September 1, 2022
Illustration by Eric Hanson
Illustration by Eric Hanson

In the catalog of birds that populate the field where we live, at the foot of the Santa Cruz Mountains, I keep a kind of spectrum in my mind, beginning with the turkey, a frequent visitor, and ending with the great blue heron. Though both are substantial in size, they are worlds apart in deportment. Whereas the wild turkey could be called a commoner, the heron is as regal as they come. Sometimes, driving home, I pull into our road and see one standing in the field across from the mailboxes. The bird in question usually has its eyes fixed on the grass, a foot or so in front of it, or else is walking, slowly, deliberately, with its backward-folding legs in a kind of promenade. Dances of the royal court must have been based on observations of such birds. The crane. The egret. The heron. The little black wisps of plumage at the back of the head are clearly the world’s first fascinators, those frequently feathered displays worn by the British at formal events. Jaunty. Stylish. Also, seemingly at odds with the activity at hand: in this case, hunting gophers.

I’ll let you imagine a heron for a moment. More than four feet tall. A wingspan, should it happen to take flight, of six feet. Feathers a dusky gray, with a whitish face and rusty neck. It wears a plumed ruff on its back and chest, and if you get close enough, you’ll see the yellow eyes with their precise, dark pupils. I must mention, as well, the sound they make, which, given the bird’s appearance, I was not expecting, though I became aware of the heron’s voice when one used to land, every week, on our roof. First, I’d hear the clatter and thud of the bird, and then a kind of croaking that reminded me of a large bullfrog. Or maybe, more precisely, a large bullfrog with a sore throat. I mean to say that the great blue heron is not so much a singer as an announcer. It makes itself known in the way a creaky door might make known an unexpected visitor.

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