Rain-loving heron is a study in patience

IN THESE days of slate-hopping downpours, I sometimes wonder if the heron standing on our balcony is simply brainless or if it revels in the weather. It makes no attempt to find shelter.

It stands in a high, exposed position, hunches its shoulder, assumes the profile of the Sandeman sherry advert (but without the hat) and simply seems resigned. It stands there hour after hour. It may or may not take a break and come to stare at us through a window, signalling that it would enjoy a snack. It especially enjoys chicken bones, which it swallows with gusto. But generally, its diet is fish.

Folk ask me why we continue feeding it, four years after we rescued it from ‘Death on the Forest Floor’ (surely a good title for an Agatha Christie novel). The answer is that we had no alternative but to rescue it, and now have no alternative but to feed it. Unless medical expertise advances faster than natural ageing, it will, perhaps, outlive us; grey herons can live for 24 years or more.

We have no alternative but to feed it because it never learned to fish, and has established no fishing territory. It is a general principle of life that parents teach their children how to find food, tutoring by example.

It isn’t always the case, of course; various insects simply leave food available for their young, as in the case of some wasps that lobotomise cockroaches, or ants that paralyse prey: the victims in both cases remain alive but immobile, a fresh food source for the larvae when they emerge. Reptiles, also, do little parenting, apart from protecting their eggs until they hatch.

Many birds briefly tutor their young in foraging; blackbirds, thrushes and robins take their fledglings on garden or woodland expeditions, scratching the ground, turning over leaves and debris, feeding their findings to the chicks, who soon catch on.

Parent swallows take their offspring on aerial outings, catch airborne insects, and feed them to the youngsters, who learn sufficiently quickly to be able to help the parents in feeding a second brood. Ducks lead their flotillas of ducklings to water and duckweed. Soon, they are upending themselves as expertly as their dams. Example is the unfailing mentor. The learning period is short, a day or two days in many cases, then it is up to the fledglings to fare for themselves; indeed the parents will drive them away from their own feeding territory.

Our orphan heron missed those important couple of days — that brief window of learning. I could not very well don waders and fashion a look-alike beak and go down to the sea to give it prey-catching lessons. So, it never really learned. It can catch live fish; I have seen it do so, with mullet in a small pond. And, of course, at the tender age of six months, it caught, and swallowed, a rat.

These days, it sometimes arrives at the house with green seaweed on its feet, and it spends 70% of its time away from ‘home’. But our house is its usual daytime roost, and our fridge freezer — provisioned with bycatch from the local fishing boats — provides its staff of life. Of course, it may, simply, be a lazy bird.

It is also a lazy summer, lazy in coming. In late July, a reader commented than nowhere had he seen gorse in flower. In Gougane Barra, Co Cork, on August 9, I had my first recent sighting of French gorse in bloom and, on August 4, I saw an isolated clump of Irish dwarf gorse in flower on the Seven Heads.

Perennial plants blossom, as always. Long stands of montbretia line the roadsides and villages. As I drive west into the sun in the evening, they catch the light and could be verge fires, like those sometimes seen on Spanish motorways, verge grass burning in orange flames, a mass of flame leaning over the road, like a stretch of montbretia in the evening sun.

On the rare sunny mornings, the fragrance of meadowsweet hangs over the yard. A myrtle tree is in blossom, small white flowers among small, dark leaves, the rust-red trunks half brightness, half shadow.

Butterflies and other insects have been slow to appear. The flowering buddleia is without visitors. After a 70km drive at dusk, I find no insects splattered on my windscreen. There are few moths around the yard light, and no bats. But the weather improves. The mackerel are close inshore and soon, we too will be swimming.


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