On any day of the year, if you visit one of the many suburban ponds or waterways scattered throughout the Phoenix suburbs, you will almost surely see one of our most elegant resident birds, a heron called the Great Egret. They are easy to recognize, standing at three feet tall with long dark legs, a slender yellow beak and pure white feathers. If you look more closely, you are also likely to spot several other species of herons: Great Blue Herons, Green Herons and Black-crowned Night Herons are better camouflaged, but share the same habitat. Another white heron, the petite Snowy Egret, about two feet tall with a dark beak and yellow feet, is also fairly common.
|Great Blue Heron|
If it weren't for Boston tea parties, however, we might not be able to witness the majesty of herons in our suburbs today. A little more than a century after the raucous dockside tax rebellion that ignited the American Revolution in 1773, two Boston socialites, Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall, started another revolution in 1896 by hosting a series of more civilized gatherings to advocate bird conservation. Brought together over tea and biscuits, more than 900 women organized to ban the massacre of birds for their feathers.
During the late 1800's, the breeding plumage of adult Great Egrets was especially coveted by hat fashionistas. (Egret is derived from the French word aigrette, which means "silver heron." An aigrette is also the term for a decorative head ornament made with feathers.) These birds, and many other species, were nearly driven to extinction by hunters who provided feathers for the millinery industry. Efforts pioneered by the ladies of Boston eventually led to national and international laws that made plume hunting illegal. Egret populations have since made a dramatic recovery. This is one reason why the Great Egret was chosen as the symbol for the National Audubon Society, one of the oldest wildlife conservation groups in the country.
Long before we began building ponds and canals, herons have hunted along the Salt, Gila and Agua Fria rivers that once flowed freely through the Central Valley. Some of the birds are year-round residents; others winter here and return to breeding areas further north during the summer. Along wilder sections of the Gila River south of Goodyear (SW Phoenix), you can see large colonies of herons nesting and roosting in cottonwood and mesquite forests.
Anywhere there are fish, even if it's a small goldfish pond in your backyard, herons are able to detect their favorite food and may soar in for a snack. The Arizona Game and Fish Department, municipal Parks and Recreation Departments and local homeowner's associations assist with enhancing heron habitat by stocking ponds and reservoirs with fish. Although their primary intent is to provide angling opportunities for urban residents, herons and other wildlife benefit from fish stocking. Other ponds are stocked and managed specifically for wildlife, including a peaceful retreat in Glendale's Thunderbird Park at 59th Avenue and Melinda Lane, where special viewing blinds have been constructed for anyone who likes to sit and watch wildlife. If you are as patient and still as a heron, you may witness one catching its dinner.
|Herons gather at a pond in north Glendale|