Green herons fascinating, tool-wielding water birds

Posted on: July 31, 2018 | Bob Frye | Comments

Green herons are interesting.

Green herons are small birds, standing just about 17 inches tall, yet they’re amazing in many ways.
Bob Frye/Everybody Adventures

I don’t like crowding other fishermen and I don’t like other fishermen crowding me.

But this guy and I, we had something going on.

Not in a bad way, necessarily. We’d arrived at this shallow, weedy spot at the back end of a 22-acre pond – or at least become aware of each other’s presence – simultaneously, so neither had a claim to it. We weren’t fishing the same way. And we weren’t after the same species.

But we were eyeing each other nonetheless. Him out of wariness, me out of fascination.

He had nothing to worry about, as I was merely observing.

Well, OK, maybe I was gawking a bit. Not full-on paparazzi-like, but as more than casual fan.

Green herons — smaller cousins to great blue herons — are pretty interesting birds, after all.


That’s not a result of scarcity.

According to the National Audubon Society, they’re a common water bird. They live everywhere from lakes and ponds to marshes and quiet riverbanks, “especially those lined with trees, shrubs and tall marsh vegetation.”

Populations are thought to be stable range-wide and maybe even expanding “northward in parts of the northwest.”

And that range is already large.

Look at a map of America, then imagine the states colored to make a goal post, with only a handful in the upper Midwest accounting for an off-center gap between the uprights. That’s the only place green herons aren’t found.

They’re year-round residents in a few places along the southeast and southwest coasts. Everywhere else, they’re migrants.

They’ll be heading south sooner rather than later, too. Like many other species, they pack up and go between August and October, depending on location.


None of that makes them ordinary, though.

In fact, if you spend time on or around the water, fishing or just paddling, it’s worth your while to make a point to find one.

The chance to see them fishing is one reason why.

According to the National Geographic Society, many animal species make use of tools. Gorillas use sticks as rakes, while orangutans use boughs like fans to shoo away insects. Elephants have been observed dropping rocks and logs on electric fences to break the current. Sea otters strike mollusk shells against rocks to get at the food inside.

Green herons are savvy that way, too.

“The green heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It often creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, and feathers, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish,” says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Pretty cool, that.

Green herons eat other things, too. Besides minnows, small sunfish and gizzard shad, they will also eat crayfish and other crustaceans, as well as aquatic insects, frogs, tadpoles, grasshoppers, snakes, earthworms, snails and small rodents.

They usually hunt by wading in shallow water. On occasion, though, they will dive in deep water after prey. They’re decent swimmers, courtesy of webbing between their middle and outer toes.

They’re interesting looking birds, as well.

“From a distance, the green heron is a dark, stocky bird hunched on slender yellow legs at the water’s edge, often hidden behind a tangle of leaves,” Cornell adds. “Seen up close, it is a striking bird with a velvet-green back, rich chestnut body, and a dark cap often raised into a short crest.”


The one I watched nervously flicked his tail feathers and raised his crest periodically, like a guy puffing out his chest as a sign of just how rugged he could be, if the need arose.

OK, I thought. I’m content to watch from a ways off.

That’s generally a good idea anyway. Green herons don’t take any … crap.

They do leave it, though.

When agitated, green herons fly away with what Audubon describes and Bird Web plays as a “kyow.”

But pressed too closely, that “scolding squawk,” Cornell warns, is often associated with “a stream of white defecation, giving it such vernacular monikers as ‘fly-up-the-creek,’ ‘shite-polk’ and ‘chalk-line.’”

So it’s bombs away, I guess.

I didn’t suffer any of that, and will keep my distance a bit going forward just to play it safe.

But I’ll be looking for more green herons, count on that.

A bird that’s a fellow water lover and fisherman? We’re kindred spirits of a sort, after all.

Green herons are fascinating.

Bob Frye/Everybody Adventures

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Bob Frye is the editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or See other stories, blogs, videos and more at

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