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Watching the Great Blue heron catch rodents on Mud Lake was a hilarious operation

Living the Wild Life

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Photos: Bill Schiess | EastIdahoNews.com

“Wow, what is going on,” I thought as a Great Blue heron started running toward my truck as I was driving on the Mud Lake south dike last week. As I stopped, the bird took four stealthy steps toward me and froze in mid-step, then took another step and slowly stretched out its curled neck. The only thing moving was its pale-yellow eye as it focused on something in the grass.

Its body finally exploded, wings spread out as its dagger-beak plunged into the grass bringing up a large vole garnished with sprigs of grass to decorate the meal. It was probably not the first capture for this bird, as its strong bill held the rodent around the neck for about three minutes before flipping it in the air, catching it headfirst to try to swallow the carcass whole.

Getting that rodent from the mouth to the stomach became a hilarious operation. A big gulp, not from an old 7-11 Store, but of air, appeared to lodge the fur-covered meat where the head attached to the neck. Shaking the head back and forth moved the vole a little, more gulps and then pointing the bill skyward, followed by more shaking of the head in a “no-no” motion moved the blockage a little further down. Finally, the bouncing of its body up and down, along with the twisting of its neck moved the meal to its intended destination.

I was laughing so hard that the heron heard me and finally looked at me, shook its body violently and started walking away and finally flew off. I have read about people finding herons, fish eating ducks and gulls that have choked to death while trying to eat something larger than it should have. I felt that I almost had witnessed the need for the bird-world to develop a Heimlich maneuver for them.

This heron was not the only one out there feeding on the rodents in the alfalfa fields that evening. There were 31 herons in a mile stretch of the dike and in the two hours of watching them, I witnessed seven different herons capture and eat rodents. So “mousing” is not only a job for cats, but Great Blue herons are great friends for the farmers near Mud Lake.

Great Blue herons are known for their love of fish, but I also watched them eat small birds, snakes, frogs and other aquatic animals as well as large bug larvae. They are opportunistic feeders and it appeared that the rodent population around Mud Lake was abundant and someone had rung the dinner bell for them.

Great Blues are the largest herons in North America and inhabit most of the United States and part of Canada and Mexico. Many herons migrate south during the winter, but others will remain in eastern Idaho year-round cruising the large rivers and warm spring creeks.

Breeding and nesting usually occur in small to large colonies, called rookeries, containing up to 30 to 50 nests. Pairs only bond for the nesting period with new partners chosen each year. Nests are usually constructed high in dead trees by the female from material gathered by the male. An active rookery at Mud Lake was abandoned several years ago when a pair of bald eagles took over one of the nests. That rookery is now owned by Double-crested cormorants. There is a large heron rookery southwest of St. Anthony and another east of the Menan Buttes on the South Fork of the Snake River. They are fun to watch.

As you travel near waterways, be observant because they blend in very well. But if you see one standing motionless near some weeds, you may want to stop and watch for a few minutes. You may find the action extremely interesting and entertaining.

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