The Tale of Hayden the Heron

By Bob Sallinger, Bird Alliance of Oregon conservation director

Generally, the Bird Alliance of Oregon urges people not to feed wildlife — too often habituating wildlife to human handouts leads to conflicts and other problems. However in the case of one Great Blue Heron, human handouts wound up saving its life. A Great Blue Heron dubbed “Hayden” developed a habit of showing up regularly on the back porch of Carol S’ floating home on Hayden Island, and she in turn began leaving fish for him on a daily basis. A pattern developed — the heron made occasional appearances in the early morning as well as every afternoon around 5 p.m. He would let people get close, but not too close while he fed.

The week of July 5, Hayden appeared with fibrous material wrapped around the tip of his beak. It was twisted around the upper and lower mandible and hung down for several inches. The bird could barely open his beak. For a bird dependent on catching live fish and rodents for food, it would have meant starvation. However, Hayden had another source of protein, Carol.

Seeing his plight, Carol cut fish into small enough pieces that the bird could squeeze them through the quarter-inch opening he could manage with his encumbered beak, and then she and her neighbors Ron and Richard began dialing for help.

These are the calls you dread as a wildlife rehabber —  a fully mobile, flighted bird with a highly visible life-threatening problem, lots of neighbors concerned and watching, oh and the media is here too… come get him.

Bird Alliance of Oregon conservation director Bob Sallinger (center) works to remove tangled material from around a heron’s beak. Photo by Ron Schmidt

Wild birds, even ones habituated to human handouts like Hayden, don’t just let you walk up and pop them into a box. Despite best intentions, it can be a recipe for looking utterly inept while the bird plight grows more and more desperate and the public grows more agitated. All the better if there is a film crew there to document your failures: “This is John Smith with the ten o’clock news reporting that the bird is still starving, update in 30 seconds.”

The heron might allow his human benefactors to come within 8-10 feet, but that was about it. For the next three days, the heron would survive on the slivers of fish that Carol left at the edge of the back porch of her floating home.

Multnomah County Animal Services was the first up in what would prove to be a futile effort. Bird Alliance of Oregon staff assessed the situation on day two and determined that our equipment would not be sufficient. Hayden showed up, squeezed some fish into his bound beak and left. The material on his beak showed no sign of working itself free. A film crew observed the non-event from two docks away.

On day three we huddled with staff from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. A cannon net would not work — at close range it could easily take the heron over the side of the dock and drown him. He would see a pole net coming a mile away. Other kinds of traps presented other problems. Eventually we settled on a large live cage trap with a spring triggered door. Usually a bird won’t walk into a cage but the heron was hungry and used to coming to this floating porch for food. ODFW battled a second wave of I-5 traffic and returned a few hours later with the trap baited with fish, and the neighbors were left with instructions to quickly cover the trap with a sheet if the heron entered the cage – the sheet would help keep him calm – and to then call Bird Alliance of Oregon immediately.

The first call came in at 5:08 p.m. – the heron was in the trap. He was nothing if not punctual! After another round of rush hour traffic, Bird Alliance of Oregon staff arrived at the dock. Several neighbors had shown up to watch the proceedings, and a couple more floated in the water nearby. The media had long since departed.

One very ticked-off bird paced back and forth within the confines of the sheet-covered trap. When we slowly peeled back the sheet, the heron let out a series of prehistoric croaks that suggested there was not all that much separating him from his feathered ancestor, archaeopteryx.

Herons are all wings, legs and neck — they epitomize the term “gangly” — and trying to catch them inside a large cage is akin to trying to simultaneously charm five large angry snakes. It took a few minutes to wrangle this hissing, croaking, feathered serpent.

Bird Alliance of Oregon staff members were called in to help a Great Blue Heron with fibrous material tangled around his beak, shown here in a baited trap that was used to catch the heron prior to providing him with treatment. Photo by Bob Sallinger

The material around the beak was a wooly substance, perhaps the matted fur of some dead animal or the remains of somebody’s wool carpet. It was twisted tightly around the upper and lower mandible, so tight that we had to carefully cut it off. Attempts to slide it off were futile; it was on there to stay. We gave the bird a quick exam — he was a little skinny, but nothing that a renewed ability to hunt and Carol’s handouts wouldn’t quickly rectify (and, no, we still don’t endorse feeding wildlife).

We set him free on the porch. A well-held bird is usually calm, as it will instinctively remain very still because movement in the grasp of a predator will often trigger lethal activity. However, as I loosened my grasp the heron must have felt his opportunity. Legs, wings and neck shot out in five different directions and he sprawled toward the ground. Then a split second later, realizing he was free, the large bird rose regally to his full height and strutted to the edge of the dock. He ruffled his feathers as if to shake off the indignity of his human captors. He stood at the edge for several minutes, staring out across the water and more or less ignoring the group of humans that stood watching from the surrounding houseboats. Then with the slightest effort he bent his legs, leapt into the air and headed for the opposite shore.

I suspect Carol will keep feeding the heron and I suspect he will return to get his daily handout. However, I also suspect he will be slightly more wary of the humans that come to watch him enjoy his supper.

Every year the Wildlife Care Center treats 3,000 injured or orphaned native animals. If you would like to make a donation to support our wildlife rehabilitation work at the Wildlife Care Center, click here.