The discovery that a heron was plundering my catch solved the mystery but did not end my curiosity. There was more to be learned.
Apparently, herons are quite intelligent and know an easy meal when they see it. Almost immediately, a pattern became evident. If I was on the dock to use the boat or to check the crab traps, heron was nowhere in sight. As soon as I picked up my fishing rod, the bird would appear from nowhere and wait about 10 feet down the dock for my catch. At first I fiercely protected my perch. But heron was persistent and cute, and I gave into temptation, tossing an occasional fish. Eventually the bird was getting my first fish. Neighbors kidded me about having a pet heron, and when I gave him a name — Harry the Heron — I knew they were right.
Having heard stories about adopting wild animals, I checked on potential dangers.
My wife agreed. She thought I should see a shrink.
But it was the bird I worried about. Dave Brinker, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources bird expert, told me blue herons cause the biggest trouble for the state’s goldfish and koi farmers, who must protect their fish from these predators. The stately birds are not picky eaters. “If they can catch it and subdue it, they will eat it,” Brinker said. “While we usually think of them eating fish, they will eat frogs and voles and even small muskrat.”
I was amazed they could eat perch up to eight inches, but their bodies are designed to stretch. Perch are a favorite food because the fish’s shape is conducive to swallowing. Herons are smart enough to know what they can handle, and a bird choking on a meal is very rare.
Brinker confirmed it was not a good idea to keep feeding Harry, but not for the reason I thought. Once a bird learns to fend for itself, it never forgets and can always go back to self-sufficiency. There are, however, other good reasons to avoid the practice. First, these are smart birds. Once they find an easy meal, they will stick around. This can be problematic at migration time. If Harry decided to stay for the winter, and it was a bad one, it could be hard for either of us to find him food, even if I’m willing to brave sub-zero temperatures to fish for a bird. The second is one’s neighbors. While mine think it’s cool to have a resident heron, not all would agree. Especially fish pond owners.
I have to sever relations with Harry, and I will in a few weeks. We’ll both go cold turkey. I will stop fishing from my dock; he will have to catch his own dinner. I’m not sure which of us will suffer more.
To see the video of the solved the mystery, go to YouTube and enter Bay Weekly Newspaper Missing Fish Mystery Solved in the search box.