A bird that isn't what you think it is

Look at that," I said to the dogs (nobody else was around). "Now that's bad taste!"

The dogs were otherwise occupied.

But there was a line-up of blackbirds and magpies on the roof ridge I was staring at. And to me they looked as if they didn't entirely approve, either, of what caught my eye.

It was a black silhouette against the low autumn sun. Presumably it was made of steel or bronze. It was clearly meant to represent a heron. But fancy topping your house with a bit of ornithological kitsch like that! Honestly! What next?

What was next was that this entirely immobile sculpture suddenly spread its wings and, lifting itself a little indecorously into the air, lurched over to the ridge of the next house. The smaller birds followed it. They knew it was the real thing. And they still thought it was bad taste.

What can I say? Herons are not complete rarities here in our inner suburb, but when they do put in an appearance, it always seems a little uncanny. They belong, standing like frozen statues, in the mud margins of rivers or lakes in wild country places.

I can never decide if herons are wonderfully elegant or weirdly ugly. Tossing a coin wouldn't help. One thing I do know is that I wouldn't have much fondness for that beady eye and dagger beak if I were a fish.

This rooftop heron – now scratching its head nonchalantly with a long stick-leg as if to say "Ha! Fooled you!" – did, in fact, look rather sleek when it stretched its slender neck upward. But when it pulled its neck down into an S-bend close to its chest, like a snake digesting, the neck fattened up and its outline lost its former grace.

When herons decide to fly – a decision that requires considerable cogitation – and then finally, against all odds, become airborne, they look remarkably primitive. They could be survivors from before the Ice Age. Small-scale second cousins to one of the flying dinosaurs.

I've never seen a baby heron. But it isn't hard to imagine that they have an ungainly look that only a mother could love.

The Harringtons, when they lived in the Yorkshire village of Giggleswick, shared this assumption. They were the local "bird people," which meant that if a fledgling fell out of a nest before it could fly, or a robin was rescued from a cat, it would be brought to them. It was perfectly normal around the Harrington house for Betty to have some recuperating bird secreted in an apron pocket all day. No bird was too naughty, or too much of a social misfit, to be considered outside their TLC. Village magpies that were into petty larceny, ducklings that liked to twist the pink skin of local ankles in their beaks: No matter, the Harringtons would give them a home.

Though the Harringtons knew their birds, they were also learning as they went along. On one occasion, a farmer brought them a bunch of baby birds he'd found at the foot of a tree, orphaned. Cyril and Betty were straight onto the case.

The babies were made cozy in a special box, and Betty started feeding them. Problem was, their species was a mystery. They were not pretty, these babies. Long beaks, beady eyes, grayish and a bit greasy where their feathers had not yet grown. After some research, it was concluded they were herons. So they were put on a fishy diet.

Sometimes baby birds are slow getting used to being reared by humans. These were not too keen on pilchard snippets or mashed haddock. But if they wouldn't eat, what was going to happen to them?

After several days watching the heron babies spurn the proffered cuisine, the Harringtons started wondering if they were herons after all. It turned out that they were wood pigeons, whose offspring are just as ugly as heron babies but don't like fish. The story consequently had a happy ending. But I suspect it was also slightly disappointing for my friends to find themselves rearing commonplace cooing pigeons rather than strange and exotic herons.

I do wonder, though, what would have happened if the clutch had been herons and successfully brought to tamed maturity. Could they have been introduced to wild rivers and learned how to fish for themselves?

Herons do belong to the wild, and definitely not to back gardens – except for the occasional spree catching domesticated goldfish.

I recently discussed herons with the Scottish owner of a very wild and rather remote garden. In it are several big ponds. It is also near a wide estuary. Herons tend to abound here, and they show a persistent interest in the golden carp in the owner's lowest pond. As an outdoor man, he has had many occasions to study the habits of herons. While we chatted, he was keen to impart his first-hand observations. Like me, he feels herons belong to a different age.

"Their mating ritual," he said, "is extraordinarily long-winded." Distinctly old-fashioned. He had watched a pair one time in a neighboring field. They started their ritual as far as they could from each other, and then took days and days to edge tentatively closer. I think he said this shy, slow-motion courtship took about a week.

He went on to tell me that the books have it all wrong about how herons land. They say that the bird can land only on a bank or in very shallow water, and then it must hobble its way into deeper deeps to do a spot of fishing. So he and his son laboriously set up a fence and netting all around the largest fish pond so that the herons could not make it into the middle of the water and the fish would be safe.

The herons simply took no notice. They landed in the deep water, no problem, and indulged in an orgy of Compleat Angling.

Well, not quite complete. In the murkiest subaqueous shadows lurk one or two doughty survivors, grown gigantic and canny over the years. The gardener spotted one under the lily pads. "There – look!" But it was very difficult for me to see it. Finally I thought I could just make it out. It was absolutely motionless. As if it were made of steel or bronze. It has learned to beat herons at their own game.

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