Volume 14, Issue 34 ~ August 24 - August 30, 2006

Where We Live

by Steve Carr

The Bird that Tried to Save the Bay

The great blue heron thrives, while the Bay’s health continues to deteriorate

The great blue heron has become the poster child for the Chesapeake Bay. You can’t go anywhere these days without running into its proud mug. Everyone wants a piece of the action — from business brochures to state road signs. The great blue has become the Bay’s unofficial logo.

The heron’s immense popularity would seem to defy logic. You can’t eat one, and tastiness is usually why we develop a deep affection for one of the Bay’s critical critters. You can’t hold one in your hands and get all warm and snugly with it. And they aren’t what you might call friendly; haughty is more like it.

They are regal birds, with their bright yellow beaks, ruffled-grey neck feathers and that shiny black cowlick atop their white head. But it wasn’t until graphic artists started displaying them on signs and license plates that we began to realize just how cool they really are.

Back in the 1970s, when state Sen. Gerry Winegrad was pushing through the Chesapeake Bay Initiatives and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation was just getting started, they needed a symbol, something that would spark people’s imaginations and make them care about the Bay. The foundation was cranking out pamphlets about how important it was to Save The Bay, and they often adopted the great blue heron as a mascot. Before the movement to preserve the health and well-being of the Bay became popular, it was rare to see a picture of a heron. But when the Bay warriors finally got cranked up, they rode into battle with the great blue on their shields.

Then a subtle thing began to happen. The heron wove its way into our mental tapestries. Like a subliminal message flashing a brief image of popcorn during a movie, every visual signal we received regarding the plight of the Bay featured a a blue heron. So, in a very real sense, the great blue became the lightning rod for Bay protection, making us care about this grand body of water that we were slowly destroying.

Heron as Phoenix

The great blue heron looks prehistoric, and in fact they go back millions of years in the fossil record. They were among North America’s first birds, along with loons, gulls, cormorants and ducks.

The heron’s amazing ability to thrive has made it one of the Bay’s great success stories. But this has not always been the case. For hundreds of years, they were hunted for sport, and their delicate feathers were prized for their decorative value.

In the 1950s and ’60s, heron numbers plummeted because of pesticides like DDT that made their eggshells so fragile they broke before the young could hatch.

At about the same time we banned DDT, the cumulative impact of everything we were dumping into the Chesapeake — from unregulated sewerage to chemical cocktails to a million and one other acts of mindless mischief — began to drive the heron into oblivion. In addition, human encroachment along the watery edges of the Bay, in the form of development and bulkheading, stole the heron’s prime habitat.

Then a funny thing happened. Call it adaptation. Call it dumb luck. Heron numbers inexplicably started to go up. And since 1985, when the state Department of Natural Resources began annual heron surveys, the number of nesting pairs has doubled to over 6,000 in Maryland. In addition, there are now 123 recorded colonies scattered across the Bay.

I have my own resident great blue who lives pretty close to my home and who sits for hours each day on one of the pilings by my neighbor’s pier. He stares into the water, patiently waiting for a fish. Time seems to stand still as he waits, like a Zen master, his neck craned slightly at an angle, peering into the murky shallows for his next meal.

Who among us has not seen what I just described? It is perhaps, the one Bay scene we all can relate to; the solitary heron standing like a sentinel, performing its slow-motion hunting dance along the shoreline. Heron is always there, indifferent to humankind and the world around it. Striking with its spear-like yellow bill in a flash and then swallowing — almost comically — a fish or a crab down its long, undulating neck; seeming to gloat with satisfaction at its success, then returning to the hunt. Ever the hunt.

It’s 2006. The great blues have done their best. But the Bay’s health continues to deteriorate. All we can seem to do is monitor its steady decline. What we need is a new Bay symbol. How about a rockfish covered with bright red tumors?

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.