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Earth Journal
by Gary Pendleton

Tall Gawky Love Birds

She preens, then stretches her long neck and lifts her head high, hoping to catch his eye. He sees the graceful movements and gazes down upon her exquisite form. She flexes her long legs while he soars in anticipation. The long tresses that drape that graceful neck gently float on the breeze. Yellow is the color of his dagger-shaped bill, while her lores are green with something akin to desire. He lets loose an amorous yet raucous fraawahnk. It is Valentine's Day and the herons have returned to the breeding grounds.

In Charles County Maryland, 2,000 great blue herons are returning to the breeding grounds at Nanjemoy Creek. One thousand pairs, more or less, of the four-foot high wading birds build nests in the trees bordering the tidal tributary of the Potomac River. This is one of the largest heron breeding grounds, or rookeries, in the eastern United States. The sanctuary - which is home to minks, otters and rail birds - is protected by the Nature Conservancy. So the birds won't be disturbed during the breeding season, public access is limited.

Newly arrived males choose a nest site to defend and put on displays to attract a mate. Females get in on the act as well: They raise their heads high with bills pointed skyward; they stretch their necks while pushing and pulling their heads back and forth. Males soar high in the air while slowly circling their territory.

During the breeding time, spectacular nuptial plumes of feathers grow around the heads and necks of the birds. Other changes also occur: Brighter and deeper colors appear on the legs, bills and the lores, which is the area around the eyes. These changes are integral parts of the courtship displays.

I wouldn't be the first to point out the many similarities between bird behavior and the way humans display and show off in the effort to attract a mate. Cartoonist Gary Larson exploited the humorous congruence of bird and human behavior from time to time in his strip, The Far Side. Larson did it so well that it is pointless to try to match his wit.

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