Great Blue Heron: Patient, Prompt, and (Rarely) Pugnacious
by Dr. James J. S. Johnson
The heron family (family Ardeidae, which also includes bitterns and some egrets) and their cousins include some of my favorite long-legged wading birds: great blue herons, green herons, grey herons, tri-colored herons, night herons, great white egrets, and cattle egrets.
Their often smaller cousins (of the family Egretta) include the reddish egret, little blue heron, and the snowy egret. Of these many regard the great blue heron (Ardea herodias) as a favorite:
“For most of us, sightings of great blue herons are confined to a glimpse of the bird as it flies slowly and steadily overhead, wings arching gracefully down with each beat, neck bent back, and feet trailing behind. At other times we see it on its feeding grounds, standing motionless and staring intently into shallow water, or wading with measured steps as it searches for prey.” [Quoting from “Great Blue Heron”, by Donald & Lillian Stokes, in Bird Behavior, Volume III (Little, Brown & Co., 1989), page 25.]
The Holy Bible mentions “herons” twice, in Leviticus 11:19 and in Deuteronomy 14:18 (both times translating the Hebrew noun ’anaphah), in Mosaic lists of ritually “unclean” birds. The bird’s Hebrew name is based on a verb (’anaph) meaning “to snort” or “to be angry”. Herons can be aggressive, and their almost-violent habit of “zapping” their prey could appear to resemble an aggressor angrily striking at unsuspecting victim. The more likely behavior that matches the Hebrew name, however, is the aggressive defense of a heron’s feeding grounds:
“Defense of feeding territories is commonly seen and involves aerial chases, Frahnk-calls, and aggressive [body language] displays, such as Upright, Bill-down-upright, Bent-neck. Fighting rarely occurs, but when it does it can be violent, with one bird landing on the back of the other and either bird stabbing the other with its bill.” [Quoting from “Great Blue Heron”, by Donald & Lillian Stokes, above, page 30.]
Yet do not imagine that the great blue heron is an erratic hothead that has no self-control, because its self-restraint, when seeking a meal at the shoreline of a pond, is so self-contained that the heron resembles a statue, for many minutes if necessary. Then, zap! The statue suddenly fast-forwards his sharp beak toward a hapless fish or frog, — and instantly the heron is gulping down his dinner!
This ability to strike like lightning, yet the choice to withhold doing so (unless the time for doing so is obvious), reminds us of the New Testament directive: “be ye angry, and sin not” (Ephesians 4:26).
Also, in spiritual matters (Ephesians 6:12), we are exhorted to “contend earnestly” for the Biblical faith (Jude 1:3), in ways that do not involve flesh-and-blood fighting. Such spiritual conflicts require both the patience and promptness of a sniper (or an opportunistic great blue heron)! Yes, there may even come a time for the use of physical force, when the stakes are high enough – remember how the Lord Jesus cleansed the Temple with a whip! — but most of the time our anger should be suppressed, with heron-like patience, in order to achieve the most worthy goals in life.