Ron, the garden heron, (so named by a daughter-in-law), will welcome us home — the fact is, Ron will welcome anyone who comes bearing fish, so long as they’re not tinned, fried or battered.
While we were away, our neighbours, Dara Gannon, his primary-school-going son Sé and daughter Niamh, were the volunteer ‘minders’ (i.e. fish suppliers), walking to our house to feed him each morning before school or work. If he was there, they’d feed him sprat with hand-held tongs; otherwise, they’d have to leave the sprat (taken from the freezer and thawed overnight) somewhere available to Ron but safe from being snaffled by grey crows or magpies.
My wife and I never had to deal with this exigency. Being resident, we’d feed him when he showed up in the yard. Sometimes, if especially hungry, he’d knock at the French windows of our bedroom but he gave this up when he got no change, or was shooed away until we were ready to dance attendance.
Dara and his kids had to think of some way to leave the fish where Ron could reach them but the crows couldn’t. They hit on the excellent idea of dropping them into the garden pond, where, under knee-deep water, they’d be safe: the crow family don’t swim or forage underwater.
It was a seamless system. If the heron wasn’t there when they came, they’d ‘pond’ the fish. Next day they’d be gone, taken by the bird.
However, one day, in late January, they weren’t gone. They were left submerged for a second night; herons aren’t fussy about fish being a tad ‘ripe’. A stream brought clean water to the pond, and the sprat wouldn’t ‘go off’ in 48 hours. They’d surely be gone by next day.
But, surprisingly, they weren’t. So, where was Ron? The ‘minders’, concerned, emailed me in the Balearic Island. I assured them that such absences were regular in the mating
We reckoned his finding a partner wouldn’t be difficult. Probably the best fed cock heron on the bay, in springtime he’s sleek and full bodied from his regular sprat diet. Shiny black pigtails hang from his dark crown down his shantung-silk back, and a curtain of black-flecked feathers hang like a veil down his chest. He’s eight years old, 20 in human terms, a prime young beau if there ever was one.
“Let there be no panic!”, I told the concerned Dara. “He will return!”
We called him “he”, as we had all his life. The genders look exactly alike but the males fulfil different roles than the females. They bring the twigs to the nest site. Males are the labourers, females the artisans. Ron played with and carried twigs even before he could fly.
Now, in a new development, the fish left in the pond were gone each morning, but there was never any sign of Ron.
Had the magpies developed snorkelling skills? Had the scál crows learnt to fish underwater? Had Ron, somewhere, somehow met his Waterloo? Was a robber heron, an interloper, stealing the bounty? Ten days passed with no sighting: Anxiety grew.
Then, one day, Dara phoned us. Ten-year-old Sé had seen a mature heron flying out of our garden one morning and swerving into the tall pines, where the herons nest. When he ran down the woodland path, looking up at the crowns of the tall pines, he saw that at one nest, 80ft up, a heron was standing as if it had just arrived.
An hour later, it was still there, alone, erect, vigilant, as if on nest duty. So, was it Ron’s partner? Was she rearing the clutch herself and availing of Ron’s food source, normally protected by himself but, perhaps, revealed to his ‘wife’?
Or was it Ron himself who, having lost his mate, was still minding the eggs, never staying away from the nest long enough for crows to steal them?
Then, two days later, an email arrived from Dara Gannon, with a file attached.
“Look who’s back!” it said.
When I opened the file, I found a photo of Ron, his very self and image, in characteristic pose, fish in beak, standing in elegant leisure beside his personal pond.
So, for 12 days running he’d stayed close to the nest rather than loitering in the yard. He is, perhaps, a New Age male, enamoured of his wife. Or perhaps she’s flighty, a young bird, irresponsible, and he is already a mature paterfamilias, minding the stock.