The Scent of a Heron

Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains; another, a moonlit beach; a third, a family dinner of pot roast and sweet potatoes during a myrtle-mad August in a Midwestern town.

Diane Asckerman
A Natural History of the Senses

Great blue heron fledgling about to land on wall.

Great blue heron fledgling about to land on wall.

I can imagine few things a great blue heron loves more than a large, tasty fresh fish, especially if the catching is easy.

Great blue heron fledgling has landed on the wall.

Great blue heron fledgling has landed on the wall.

That day, I had been watching the fledgling heron make a circuit around the eastern shoreline, when suddenly the heron stiffened and stood erect. It turned its head toward the concrete wall leading to the tunnel entrance, and swooped upwards, landing gracefully.
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If you look closely at the bottom left-hand corner of the first photo in this post, along the ledge of the wall, there are a few objects, a couple of light colored items and one in front that is darker brown.

Great blue heron fledgling discovers discarded pike on wall.

Aha! I thought I smelled fish.

That brown object is actually a fish. A dead Northern Pike, probably discarded by one of the fishermen who sometimes dangle their lines from the grasses next to the tunnel. I’ll let the following photos tell you the story of what happened that day.
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Great blue heron fledgling picks up dead pike from atop wall.

Oh boy, a fish I didn’t have to catch myself!

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Great blue heron fledgling with dead pike.

It’s supposed to be wriggling! Why’s it so stiff?

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Great blue heron fledgling carries dead pike over to the tunnel entrance.

‘E’s passed on! This fish is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired… THIS IS AN EX-FISH!!

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Great blue heron fledgling dropping dead pike into the water.

Catch and release it’s supposed to be. Not catch and leave on the wall! Guess I’ll release it, myself.

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Great blue heron fledgling watches after dropping the pike into the water.

If you love something, set it free.
Boy, I sure love pike.


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All levity aside, I’m not aware of much empirical evidence around whether great blue herons have a sense of smell, or if they do, how acute it is.

From my perspective, the above anecdote is enough for me to believe that they do indeed have a sense of smell. The heron appeared to have scaled the wall after getting a whiff of the dead fish. I had watched this heron on other occasions when it was foraging that area of the lake, and had never before seen it show any interest in the area at the top of the tunnel wall. The grassy area there has no food for the herons, whereas the adjacent shoreline offers up fish, frogs, turtles, eels, crawfish and more.

So, great blue herons do have a sense of smell; that’s my story theory and I’m sticking to it.

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Thanks again to Ed Prescott for the Sunday Stills: Birds challenge.

Thanks also to Ese for her Ese’s Weekly Shoot & Quote Challenge – Scent prompt.

Thanks again to Prairiebirder Charlotte for her Feathers on Friday challenge.

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(This took place September 2011)

© 2013 Babsje. (https://babsjeheron.wordpress.com)

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Posted on October 4, 2013, in ardea herodias, Art, Bird photography, daily prompt, Ese's Weekly Shoot & Quote Challenge, Feathers on Friday, Great Blue Heron, Nature Photography, Sunday Stills, Wildlife Photography and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Extra marks for working a Python sketch into an entertaining post! RH

    • Your comment made my day! I’m so glad you caught that Python skit reference and mentioned it in your comment. I was wondering when someone would catch on. Thanks!

  2. I like your quote. I almost used it too!!

  3. Ah yes, the Dead Parrot, er Fish Sketch! Nice photo sequence. Interesting that the smell drew the heron to the dead fish, but then other senses took over.

  4. Well, I would say that your theory is correct. I’ve spent a lot of time watching birds, and they all seem to have a much better developed sense of smell than science generally gives them credit for.

    • Thanks for confirming. I’ve always suspected they could smell, and so always tried to position myself downwind when out photographing them, but didn’t have anything specific to go on until that day in the story. Care to share any of your experiences with birds being able to smell things?

      • I don’t recall the specific instances when it appeared to me that birds were relying on their sense of smell, but I do remember posing that question to readers of my blog, doing some research online,and noting that science now knows that vultures and buzzards find their food by sense of smell rather than sight as scientists used to think. It may have had to do with birds identifying each other.

  5. Really wonderful take on the theme, telling the story “through the birds”. I am learning the things i hadn’t heard before 🙂

    • I’m glad you liked this story, thanks for your kind comment. I’m rather obsessed with the herons and am also learning a lot about, and from, them over the years, myself.

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