Ardea cinerea

The Flasher

Heron in a provoking pose

I saw this grey heron (in Holland we call them blue) near a ditch along a bike path near Warmond. I’ve seen herons in this pose before and my association was with one of those men who find it necessary to expose their genitals to the public by wearing only a raincoat designed for easy opening. We call those ‘potloodventers’ (pencil salesmen). I thought it funny, and sent the picture to a friend, but her not being Dutch, or a man, makes her mind work differently, and she only said she’d seen cormorants do the same thing, dry their wings. Which made me think again, was the bird indeed flashing? And if not, was he (or she) drying wings, or is it something else altogether?

I currently have four, maybe even five, theories. The first one: he is showing his goods to the ladies. This is actually quite unlikely. The picture was taken in august, breeding season long gone, there were no other herons around, and last but not least, modern birds (neoaves) do not have penes to flash. The second one, drying wings, does not seem to make much sense either. The wings do not look wet (click the picture to get a better view), and in contrast to cormorants, who dive, the heron just sticks its neck out in the water very rapidly, and does not get wet wings. Cormorants, cousins of the heron, spread their wings wide when drying and use a more exposed position, which makes sense, and this is not what my heron does. A third possibility is that the wings are used to create a shadowy patch over the water, to make it easier to catch a fish. Some herons, albeit of other species, have been observed to do that. It was, however, not standing in the water, or even close, and should have looked down, not up. Maybe he is trying to impress another male to stay away, but there were no other birds of the same species in evidence. I’ve seen herons defend their territory, which amounts to flying very aggressively and screeching towards the perceived enemy. Not at all just standing there with your wings spread, making yourself vulnerable to attack.

In such moments of need I turn to the internet for enlightenment. Which so far provided no answer to this pressing question. But happily clicking away you tend to see a lot of other stuff. And usually it does not take long before I see something that irritates me no end. In this case it was a statement on a website devoted to symbolism of some sort, on which I read: “In Africa, the heron was thought to communicate with the Gods.”Of course no source is provided.

Africa, the world’s second–largest and second–most–populous continent (says wikipedia). About 30.2 million km2, more than three times larger than the USA, with an estimated 3000 different tribes, population more than a billion, and at least ten species of heron. And probably an uncountable number of different gods. On the same site it was also stated that “In Egypt the Heron is honored as the creator of light.” Egypt is also in Africa. I doubt if anyone in Egypt honors the heron nowadays. In ancient Egypt they did honor Bennu (Ardea bennuides), not as the creator of light, but as symbol of rebirth. And then it happens: someone throws such an unsubstantiated statement on the internet, which is then thoughtlessly repeated numerous times, of course again without giving the source. Submit the sentence (in quotes) for a search in google, and it pops up time after time after time, exactly the same phrasing (obviously) followed by exactly the same other statements devoid of content like: “Most Native American tribes took note of the heron’s inquisitiveness, curiosity and determination.” Who makes this stuff up, and why?

At the risk of once again wandering off and getting lost in the deep hidden places of the world wide web, I tried to investigate where the statement came from. Why people make such utterances, or repeat them unthinkingly, I leave for another day. As with the quest for understanding the heron’s pose this led nowhere. There are a few folk tales in which a heron features, but none of those makes any mention of them being in contact with a god or gods. There is a nice Japanese fairy tale called The Heron Maiden:

A young man comes across a wounded heron, and he takes it in and nurses it back to health. When the heron has regained the use of its wings, he releases it, and the heron flies away. Time passes and the young man meets a beautiful young woman with whom he falls in love. They get married and begin living happily together. The young wife weaves a particular kind of silk brocade in which the designs appear in relief. The young man sells the fabric, and the two are able to support themselves in this way. But the young woman places a constraint upon the man: He must never observe her while she is weaving her fabric. Of course the young man cannot resist the temptation to look, and when he does he sees a heron at the loom. Under his gaze the heron is transformed into a beautiful woman — she is his wife. Now that the secret has been exposed, The heron Maidens happy life with the young man must come to an end. The young woman bids her husband a fond goodbye, and flies away with her heron companions.

This is actually quite pleasing, and reminiscent of many other fairy and folk tales where too much questioning leads to doom or disaster.

Much nastier is a Hausa story2 called The farmer, the snake, and the heron:

There was once a man hoeing away on his farm, when along came some people chasing a snake, meaning to kill it. And the snake came up to the farmer. Says the snake “Farmer, please hide me.” “Where shall I hide you?” said the farmer, and the snake said “All I ask is that you save my life.” The farmer couldn’t think where to put the snake, and at last bent down and opened his anus, and the snake entered. Presently the snake’s pursuers arrived and said to the farmer “Hey, there! Where’s the snake we were chasing and intend to kill? As we followed him, he came in your direction.” Says the farmer “I haven’t seen him.” And the people went back again.

Then the farmer said to the snake “Righto – come out now. They’ve gone.” “Oh no” said the snake, “I’ve got me a home.” And there was the farmer, with his stomach all swollen, for all the world like a pregnant woman!

And the farmer set off, and presently, as he passed, he saw a heron. They put their heads together and whispered, and the heron said to the farmer “Go and excrete. Then, when you have finished, move forward a little, but don’t get up. Stay squatting, with your head down and your buttocks up, until I come.” So the man went off and did just exactly as the heron had told him, everything. And the snake put out his head and began to catch flies. Then the heron struck and seized the snake’s head. Then he pulled and he pulled until he had got him out, and the man tumbled over. And the heron finished off the snake with his  beak. The man rose and went over to the heron. “Heron” says he, “You’ve got the snake out for me, now please give me some medicine to drink, for the poison where he was lying.” Says the heron “Go and find yourself some white fowls, six of them. Cook them and eat them – they are the medicine.” “Oho” said the man, “White fowl? But that’s you” and he grabbed the heron and tied it up and went off home. There he took him into a hut and hung him up, the heron lamenting the while. Then the man’s wife said “Oh, husband! The bird did you a kindness. He saved your life, by getting the trouble out of your stomach for you. And now you seize him and say that you are going to slaughter him!” So the man’s wife loosed the heron, but as he was going out, he pecked out one of her eyes. And so passed and went his way. That’s all. For so it always has been – if you see the dust of a fight rising, you will know that a kindness is being repaid! That’s all. The story’s finished.

I could not find a picture to go with this story, apparently nobody felt the need to illustrate it. Unlike the Heron Maiden, for which there are numerous illustrations. No one, snake, farmer, or in the end heron (but maybe that is justified he must have been rather pissed, although the farmer’s wife did help him) is particularly grateful for the help they got, but no gods appear to play a role in the heron’s decisions here either. I have no idea what lesson we have to draw from this tale. Don’t hide a snake up your butt? I knew that. The heron does seem to possess some interesting knowledge though.

Moving to Europe; I found a fable by Jean de la Fontaine, about a heron who spurns the readily available fish that he deems below his standard, but ends up eating snails. With as conclusion the lesson:


Such is the sure result
Of being too difficult.
Would you be strong and great,
Learn to accommodate.
Get what you can, and trust for the rest;
The whole is oft lost by seeking the best.

Again, no gods in sight, but this is of course in Europe, not Africa. Bird flight in general was used a a predictor for future events by the Romans: “taking the auspices”, interpreting the flight of birds, was the task of the augur, to figure out what the will of the gods was. But so far I have not been able to find special mention of the heron in this context. Any bird would do, I suppose. Being in the sky they all were closer to god.

Web of Science (which also has links to literature and folklore journals) did not yield any results either. I did find an interesting paper about the fishing habits of herons, called Herons and Fish3, which starts with the sentence: “It was commonly believed and asserted by old–time writers on natural history that from the feet and legs of the common heron exuded an oil with a peculiar odour which attracted fish within striking distance of the bird’s powerful beak”. The author, Herbert Maxwell, does not believe it, but then goes on to tell a story about a heron and the goldfish in one of his “country neighbours” pond. I quote: “The owner of the garden, a good observer upon whose statement I can rely, tells me that the bird always took its stand in one corner of the pond, on the ledge covered by the shallow water, and that the goldfish moved out of the deep water into the centre and congregated round the heron, who picked them up at leisure”. Unfortunately the observing neighbour does not mention the stance of the bird, or Herbert fails to report that. The neighbour apparently enjoyed the company of herons, always feeding them. The paper ends with the statement: “Although I draw no interference from this incident, it seems worth mentioning. It would be interesting to hear of a parallel case”. The paper was never cited, so no parallel cases were reported in Nature. Ponds with goldfish or the rather more expensive koi being devoured by herons is a common occurence here, people sometimes put a fake heron next to the pond to discourage real ones, but no one seems to pay attention to how exactly the heron does it. There are also a few reports on herons using insects as bait4, on them diving (like terns) for food5 , and about something which I have no idea what to think of, called Luminosity of the Night Heron6. Copies of those papers available upon request. No papers on the communicating-with-the-gods pose, but I keep my eyes peeled.

Those were the days. You could write to Nature or to Science if you just observed something you thought was interesting. Probably there was no outright rejection of your contribution, or an extensive set of referee reports needed to get something published in those journals. It reminded me of a Science paper called A Bit of Summer Work7 in which a Medical Doctor makes an argument for good employment of the summer time by dissecting the brain of a cat. One of his arguments is “Of the animals named the cat seems to be the most favourable subject. It is always and everywhere obtainable; the brain is larger than that of the rabbit, and more easily extracted than those of sheep and dogs”.


[1] http://www.symbolic-meanings.com/2007/10/08/symbolism-of-the-heron/

[2] N. Skinner, Hausa Tales and Traditions. Vol. 1, p. 145-146.

[3] H. Maxwell, Nature, 107, (1921), 490.

[4] C.R. Preston, H. Moseley, and C. Moseley, Green–backed Heron baits fish with insects, The Wilson Bulletin, 98, (1986), 613–614.

[5] M. Gochfeld, Aerial fishing by Pied Herons, The Wilson Bulletin, 88, (1976), 356–357. J.G. Reese, Unusual Feeding Behavior of Great Blue Herons and Common Egrets, Condor, 75, (1973), 352.

[6] W.L. McAtee, The American Midland Naturalist, 43, (1950), 506.

[7] B.G. Wilder M.D., Science, 1, (1880), 4

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