“I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I can tell a hawk from a handsaw”
Unmistakable long-legged birds with a throaty, croaking call these are our most common native heron. Up to a metre tall with the wingspan of a golden eagle, herons are often seen in our rivers and ponds hunting with patience and pin-point accuracy or flying pterodactyl-like overhead.
They have been surveyed for longer than any other British bird since the renowned ornithologist Max Nicholson set out in 1928 to count every heron breeding in Britain, finding 4000 nests. Following this pioneering work heronries have been surveyed every year and there are now 13,000 nests in Britain today and more herons than at any point in recorded history. (A heronry is a colony of nesting herons which can consist of around 100 nests although one recorded in Brede, Sussex, in 1866 had 400 nests. Some of them have been occupied for hundreds of years with the BTO having records of a still existing heronry dating back to the late 1600s).
They are early nesters, sometimes starting to lay eggs in February but more usually March, with the season extending into May. They frequently pair for life and usually return to the same nesting spot year after year. The courtship displays can be dramatic with their chest and neck plumes standing erect and their long necks twisting and turning, calling raucously and snapping their bills.
Herons are one of the great success stories of the British bird world over the last few decades. They are very versatile feeders, able to take small mammals and even other birds such as young moorhens when fish stocks are low, especially during a big freeze and they are also resourceful birds, heading to warmer towns and cities to feed in garden ponds, although they are vulnerable to very harsh winters. A large part of their success is down to the way that rivers are now looked after – being at the top of the freshwater food-chain they are good indicators of environmental health.
Historically known as hragra, other names included harn, hernser, her(o)nshaw and handsaw - “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I can tell a hawk from a handsaw” (Hamlet, Act II, scene 2). They were a popular choice for medieval banquets, the younger birds, known as ‘branchers’, being particularly favoured and were considered fair game for hawkers, with peregrines often being flown against them.
Anglers believed the feet of the bird gave of a scent that attracted fish and often carried a heron’s foot as a good luck charm and rotted heron guts were used as a lure.