Question from Denis in Saint-Clet, QC

The following questions and answers were first published in the Hudson/Saint-Lazare Gazette and are reprinted here with permission.

We have had a heron hunting for frogs in the drain in front of our place for the past few days. Last year we had a similar situation and unfortunately we eventually found the bird dead beside the road. What are my options should this bird need help?

In July and August young herons are busy leaving the nest and trying to make their own way in the world. In doing so, they face many trials, not the least of which is learning to hunt. So this is a very stressful time for these young birds. While in the nest young herons are fed fish by their devoted parents. You have to be devoted to barf up partially digested fish to youngsters armed with sharp beaks and a poor aim! But well fed they are and so much so that they are often heavier than their parents when they leave the nest.

In dealing with a situation involving a potentially injured or ill bird there are several questions that need to be asked, including, does it need help? This may sound crazy but you cannot believe how often we are fooled by an apparently healthy and normal bird. Before you approach the bird, look at it quietly. Are both its wings sitting evenly and is it using both legs? Any injury to the wings or legs is quite obvious in herons. Next, quietly approach the bird. If it does not move off very far it may indeed have a problem. Having decided that you need to intervene for this bird’s sake, it is best to be well prepared before you tackle catching the bird. Herons hunt by stabbing their prey with their very efficient long beak. This action is innate and one that is also used as a defense mechanism. It is this defense mechanism that can lead to injuries for the would-be rescuer. Use a large towel or blanket to throw over the heron making sure that you also cover its head. Grab its head first and while holding the head gently with one hand, gather up the body with the other, pop the whole bird and blanket into a large box or dog crate. It is rather like trying to manage a set of live bagpipes, which means it is probably better to have two people do to this operation. Then transport the bird to your nearest rehabilitation centre. Since this can be a fairly dangerous operation, the team at Le Nichoir (450 458 2809) may be able to help you.

I mentioned earlier that youngsters may be heavier than their parents when they finally fledge. It is this normal circumstance which I suspect contributes to several youngsters ending up in a rehabilitation centre. Many environmental toxins are fat soluble and may become concentrated in the fat stores of the fish that are on the heron’s menu. Eat enough of these fish and the birds also end up with a toxic burden. To survive, young herons need to practice fishing. During this time, it is a great bonus to have a significant amount of stored fats to ensure that you don’t become emaciated while learning to fish. The irony is that the better the parents are at fishing and caring for their youngsters, the more stored fats their youngsters fledge with, and potentially the higher level of toxic materials deposited in that fat. By mobilizing fat rapidly during a period of starvation, the bird will experience a toxic pulse at a critical time in its development which may make it vulnerable to other problems.