Common Name: Great Blue Heron, Shitepoke – Heron is of ancient origins with uncertain etymology; it is most likely from scrīan, meaning ‘scream,’ which might logically derive from the pronounced ‘frawnk’ sound that the heron makes when disturbed. It is quite large, and therefore great with blue and gray plumage.
Scientific Name: Ardea herodias – The generic name Ardea is the Latin word for heron; the species name does not have a traceable root, though it is likely a Latinized form for heron.
Potpourri: The Great Blue Heron is the largest of the North American wading birds; the herons, with the egrets and bitterns, comprise the family Ardeidae. Most of the 65 recognized ardeid species are smaller versions of the great blue heron in having slender bodies, long S-shaped necks, water-wading legs, and lance-like beaks. These characteristic morphologies mirror the environmental stressors that motivated the evolutionary forces of their avian ancestors. The niche occupied by the herons is testimony to their adaptability; in shape, size and mobility they are ideally suited for survival in both fresh and salt tidewaters on a mainstay diet of the marine organisms on which they prey. While the fossil record is sparse for birds in general and herons in particular – there are only forty species represented – herons are thought to be relatively primordial, emerging in the Paleocene epoch about 60 million years ago. They became stabilized as recognizable to modern species by the Miocene Epoch 20 million years ago when their favored aquatic habitats were a prevalent topography; extant modern species extend to the Pleistocene Epoch about one million years ago.
The taxonomic morphology of 18th Century Linnaean provenance has been largely compromised by the more recent understanding of evolution and the role of DNA in its manifestations. The genera of the Family Ardea are not exempt from the turmoil and are consequently ill-defined; the concomitant assignments of species are equivocal for the same reason. The result at present is to lump the ardeids into a single sub-family consisting of what are sometimes called the “archetypical herons” including the great blue heron, the green heron, the egrets and several other monotypic genera. The egrets are especially close to the herons biologically; there is a subspecies of great blue heron that is totally white (and called the Great White Heron) that is almost identical to the Great Egret, which, like all of the other egrets, is also totally white. The visual difference is that the Great Egret has black legs and a smooth head and the Great White Heron has yellow-orange legs and a tuft of feathers resembling a bonnet that extend raffishly back from the brow. The diaphanous, airy feathers of herons and egrets gave rise to their incorporation into women’s fashion in the late 19th Century, a tradition consistent with the use of fur for coats and reptiles for shoes.
The burgeoning industrial revolution transformed the untamed wild areas of North America and engendered an arrogant distain for its denizens. The millinery trade was one of many that exploited the seemingly endless bounty of the continent with no restrictive government sanctions; it was the era of laissez-faire. Woman’s hats took on gargantuan proportions with a virtual aviary of taxidermic birds including hummingbirds and warblers festooned with the long and luxurious plumes of the larger birds, notably egrets and herons. By 1896, the rookeries of the shore birds were being decimated to the point of extinction and articles began to appear in the leading periodicals to this effect – the genesis of environmentalism. One caught the eye of Mary Hemenway, one of Boston’s renowned Brahmin blue-bloods, who, with her cousin Minna Hall, summoned the leading women of Boston to a series of meetings to address the issue, their concurrent support manifest in a boycott of the fashionable milliners who sold the avian chapeaux. Their nascent organization, named the Massachusetts Audobon Society in honor of the near-deified ornithologist John James Audobon, was apparently a matter of Zeitgeist, as the leading citizens of other states as diverse as New York, California and Texas rapidly followed suit. The National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals was incorporated in 1905; the unwieldy name was abbreviated in practice to the Audobon Society, which adopted the egret/heron as their symbol, its protection having been their inspiration.
The Audobon Societies became the national conscience for the protection of wild bird populations, and their political pressure resulted directly in the enactment of legislation to prevent the continued decimation of wild birds. Just four years after the first meeting in Boston, Representative John Lacey, a Republican from Iowa, introduced legislation directed at the preservation of wild birds by criminalizing the transport and sale of protected animals across state lines. The Lacey Act (16 U.S.C. §§ 3371–3378) was signed into law by President William McKinley in 1900, the first conservation legislation at the federal level. His successor, President Theodore Roosevelt, followed suite with the establishment of the first of fifty one federal wildlife preserves at Florida’s Pelican Island in 1903. Political pressure for a more comprehensive bird protection law continued, ultimately yielding the definitive Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 (16 U.S.C. §§ 703–712) to make it illegal to “to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture, or kill, possess, offer for sale ……any migratory bird, any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.” The law is still in effect, protecting 800 listed species, including the Great Blue Heron.
The nonpareil spear-fishing expertise of the herons is evident in the acumen they display in its execution. Taking advantage of the anatomical configuration of a long, pointed beak, a tall, spindly body as a coign of vantage and acute vision, they stand majestically still in the shallows and wait for the slightest movement, triggering a lightning strike thrust to consummate the act. When this technique fails to produce the desired result, they switch to a number of more active feeding methods. Slow wading is employed at a glacial pace to allow for mobility without the negative effects of stirring up the sediment and clouding the water. This is augmented by the use of the long talons to stir and probe the bottom to flush out prey. The wings are also used to create shadows that might serve to frighten prey or to reduce glare for improved observation. The Green Heron (Butorides virescens) is the master of the hunt among the herons. This is likely the adaptive result of its smaller stature; it has short legs and a short neck and therefore cannot spear-fish with the mastery of its taller cousins. In addition to the employment of an elaborate technique of foot-raking to flush out prey, the Green Heron is one of only a few species known to use tools. These consist of objects such as feathers, leaves or even crumbs of bread that are placed in the water to entice a minnow to the surface, its fate sealed. The Green Heron is also responsible for the alternative common name Shitepoke, which is as scatological as it sounds; the bird is wont to defecate when aroused, most notably on ascension. According to H. L. Mencken in The American Language, “Shitepoke was borrowed from the Dutch shyte-poke. It is legendary throughout the shitepoke’s territory that it lives on excrement.” I think that it is safe to say based on this surely erroneous derivation that etymology is more of a liberal art than a science.