On a wing and a prayer for our old friend Ron

The heron that was regular feature in our garden since we raised it from a lost fledgling to adulthood has been absent for three weeks, presumed dead. Herewith, a brief history, for the new reader.

In 2011, Susan Lovell, a neighbour, came to tell us one Sunday morning that there was a gauche-looking, skeletal-thin bird rushing about on spindly legs in the wood below our house. It was a fledgling heron and, unless it was rescued, it would soon be snatched by a fox or a dog.

With family, I went to the wood. I phoned a tree-surgeon to ask him to put it back in its nest ninety feet up a tree, but he wasn’t available. So, we took it home, raised it in a fish-box on an open balcony, and it survived to fly and make its own way in the world, albeit coming to our yard most days for a meal of fish donated by boat fishermen, fish processors and fish merchants.

It mated from Year Two and every year raised a family in its nascent woods. Then, three weeks ago, it disappeared, never before having been absent for more than eight days and unlikely to desert its food source when, in April, it had young to feed. We could only conclude that it had met disaster, that it was dead.

So, how might it have died? It was in its prime, well fed and robust. A knowledgeable birdwatcher, John Nichol, suggested a pine marten as a possible culprit.

These cat-size weasels can climb trees and might have attacked it on the nest. A marten was filmed at Scotland’s Loch Garten reserve peering into an osprey nest. The osprey saw it off. Could a heron do the same?

If a marten climbed the 100 ft (30m) up an almost branchless pine tree to a heron nest, the unfledged young would be ‘sitting ducks’ unless protected by an adult. A heron’s beak is like a dagger and it can stab right through the body of an inch-thick flatfish.

But if a marten came stealthily at night — they are dusk, dawn and nocturnal hunters — and found the parent asleep and sprang on it, it would have the advantage. Martens are agile and at home in the forest canopy chasing red squirrels, their traditional prey, so a treetop tussle to the death with a heron might not be impossible. This suggestion is worth a thought.

For myself, I wonder if there could have been a ‘mobbery’ of herons. That’s my word, borrowed from ‘a murder of crows’. Could the herons nesting close by ‘our’ heron Ron have attacked him to raid the large and nutritious food stocks he so regularly brought to the nest, compliments of the Enright’s generous sprat supply?

Could herons be envious? Hardly ‘envious’, I would think, but programmed to exploit a rich food source when feeding their chicks, especially if there was a shortage of food in the wild. And could there be a shortage of small inshore fish in the local bay?

Ron, preening, on the day he disappeared; maybe he was planning to go somewhere? Picture: Damien Enright
Ron, preening, on the day he disappeared; maybe he was planning to go somewhere? Picture: Damien Enright

I know that the ‘bootlace’ eels as I called them, and the old-penny size sand dabs that my children and I could catch twenty years ago are no longer available for my grandchildren (nor the sticklebacks in a local stream, nor the lizards in the wasteland).

So, could two or three pairs of local herons have attacked Ron’s nest and family? Herons constantly steal twigs from each other’s nests, and herons have been known to eat one another’s chicks. (I’m afraid that while we may be sentimental about their beauty and their grace, they are not sentimental about one another. Nature is ever thus. If they are hungry and there’s no other food supply, they will put their family’s survival first.)

So, a mob of neighbours attacks and, by sheer weight of numbers, prevails? Birds do ‘mob’ targeted prey and, in a gang, employ diversifying tactics. This is seen, especially, with magpies where one of the pair, or family, will cleverly distract other birds from a food source while partners in the thievery will swoop out of hiding and snaffle the prize. Years ago, I observed and wrote about two magpies driving our poor springer spaniel demented, one pulling her tail while she was busy snapping at the other tweaking her ear.

And herons can and in emergencies do, kill other herons. I wrote, last year, about a good neighbour and naturalist, Kevin Hanly, now deceased and much missed, and his wife, Beth, finding a young heron dead in our yard, neck broken, almost certainly by Ron himself , repelling a raider or invader after his territory and his food.

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