BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)
The great blue heron—or GBH in birder’s parlance—is a very large bird. Many refer to it as the “pterodactyl bird” because of the way it surprises people by suddenly bursting straight up out of a roadside ditch. Even its biblical-sounding scientific name, Ardea herodias, implies that the GBH is not to be trifled with.
Displaying its typical feeding behavior, a Great Blue Heron carefully stalks its prey in the San Diego River Channel’s Southern Wildlife Refuge. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow’s NATUREGRAPHS)
One early morning, just past sunrise, I was with a group of nature photographers on Sanibel Island, Florida. We were indulging ourselves in the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge’s morning smorgasbord of bird life when something suddenly swooped through my peripheral vision that was so unusual, I just knew it couldn’t be real. Seconds later, came a high-pitched voice on the opposite side of a cluster of red mangroves: “He’s got a snake! The great blue heron has caught a snake!”
Proudly holding its latest catch, a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) begins gulping down a huge water snake while sitting on a small island in Florida’s Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo Copyright Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)
The largest North American heron, GBHs are commonly seen along the shorelines of wetlands and open water throughout North America. A highly adaptable bird both in terms of habitat and diet, this mighty wading bird thrives wherever it decides to live, from subtropical mangrove swamps to desert rivers and the estuaries of southern Alaska.
Now it’s not at all unusual for a GBH to catch a snake. But this was a northern water snake, at least eight feet long and as big around as a baseball bat. Even with its head and upper body looped around the heron’s beak and neck, this reptilian behemoth’s body was twitching and turning all the way down into the water at the heron’s feet.
For the next 30 minutes the battle royal was on. The snake coiled and danced, trying desperately to break the grip of the heron’s beak so it could drop free into the water and swim away. In turn, the GBH countered every one of the snake’s elusive moves by systematically yo-yoing the reptile’s body high into the air, then slamming the writhing body down against the hard sand surface of the small island on which he stood. The snake would repeatedly curl up into a jumbled ball only to have the heron shake him loose again like a fisherman unfurling coiled rope from a boat.
Finally, the heron was able to trap the snake’s wildly wriggling head between its upper and lower beak, making the snake’s body go limp for a split second. This was just the moment the heron had been waiting for. He immediately began gulping the snake down at what seemed like a foot every second. Soon the entire snake had disappeared down the heron’s gullet except for the very last six inches of its still twitching tail. After a few more gulps the tail also vanished into the heron’s mouth.
The next thing that happened had us all watching agape and aghast. The heron’s entire long neck—all two feet plus of it—began heaving convulsively, distending to four times its normal width. Clearly the engorged snake was still very much alive and was now wreaking havoc inside the heron’s body. Finally, after several minutes of agitated gulping and swallowing water to force the snake down, the GBH raised one leg and tucked it into his body feathers, folded his neck into his breast, and went to sleep—seemingly none the worse for wear.
Text excerpted from book: BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press).
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.