Vaguely Totemic

The great blue heron plucked the feather out of the water, and shook loose the droplets. Then, she carefully dropped the feather back into the water.

After a few moments, she retrieved it with that stiletto beak, shook it dry, and then dropped it into the water once again.

Great blue heron fishing with a feather as bait.

Great blue heron shaking a seagull feather.

Transfixed, I watched her repeat this for more than ten minutes. It looked almost ritualistic – totemic or shamanic even – to see a feathered creature brandishing a feather from a different bird in such repetitive behavior.

And then it dawned on me.

Before she first picked up the feather, she had been fishing, staring intently into the water as though tracking a fish, from the half-submerged pine trunk.

And once she picked up the feather, she continued her fishing – using the feather as bait to attract her prey, the fish. How smart a bird and how alluring a lure she chose.

Crows are the master tool users of the bird world, but as this experience shows, herons are smart birds, too. The Internet is rife with accounts of animals using tools, and I’ve observed herons using tools for fishing on other occasions, but there’s something magical and special about her choice of a feather.

And after all, don’t human fishermen – especially fly casters – often fashion their lures with feathers? Why should a great blue heron choose any differently? Ingenious heron!


Thanks to Paula and WordPress for the Thursday’s Special Non-Challenge Challenge.

Thanks once more to Ese for her Ese’s Weekly Shoot & Quote Challenge – Allure.

Thanks also to Skinnywench for the Word a Week Challenge: Favorite. No secret, great blue herons are my favorites.

Thanks again to Stewart Moncton for the Wild Bird Wednesday prompt.


Remember: Walk softly and carry a long lens.

(This took place July 25, 2011)

© 2013 Babsje. (

Posted on October 31, 2013, in A Word A Week Photo Challenge, ardea herodias, Art, Birds, daily prompt, Ese's Weekly Shoot & Quote Challenge, Great Blue Heron, Michelle's Weekly Pet Challenge, postaday, Thursday's Special, Weekly Photo Challenge, Wild Bird Wednesday, Wildlife Photography and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. Great post. I’ve read about herons using twigs, feathers or leaves as tools to catch fish. How amazing that you caught it on ‘film’, and were able to watch the process. Just amazing.

    • Hi Judy, many thanks for your kind compliment. It was a rewarding day. I also have photos of a GBH fishing with a twig/stick to post one day, but the feather was magical.

  2. Ingenious indeed 🙂 This is a very interesting account Babsje and it shows how much you know about the bird world 😀 A terrific shot, too 🙂

  3. hmmmm…and to think we were the first to use tools-lol..great pic!

  4. and story….facinating observation I might add:-)

  5. Hi, green herons, and grey herons (great blue heron relatives) do similar things.


    (also the comments),

    • Good stuff! Thanks for commenting. I had seen the green heron video and almost posted the link here, so you beat me to the punch! 🙂 It’s fascinating what we can see and learn about birds in the field if we stay still and quiet and watch from a good enough distance as they go about being birds.

      • Yes, you are right.

        By the way, about 100 years ago, grey herons were shy in the Netherlands, as they were hunted. Now, they often stand at about 2 meter from anglers to maybe get food.

        Grey herons in Amsterdam video:

        • Thanks for this link, too. Its good that the grey heron population has rebounded. Here, there are some places and/or some individual great blue herons and great egrets that I have observed in the field as being extremely tame. I’ve blogged passionately about people – birders, photographers, whomever – taking care to not endanger the birds and not get too near, especially when it comes to fledglings who are most vulnerable. On the one-hand, birds are smart and can easily learn to follow fishermen or boats for a free lunch, and this can keep them well-fed for the short term. There is a risk that an unwary bird will get hooked or entangled by an errant line and strangle. So you’re right, I’m sure the grey herons there know an easy lunch can be had by staying near fishermen, but it makes me nervous because of hooks and lines. Anyway, thanks as always for your informative comments!

  6. Wow, that is fascinating! I wonder how old this habit is. It’s amazing to see how ingenious birds and animals are. Thank you for the great information and I love the photo.

  7. How amazing, that herons use the same tactics as human fishermen. I guess they’ve been doing it for much longer though. 🙂 Great photo, Babsje.

    • I think you’re right. – the birds have been at this for eons longer. I’m glad you like this one, and as always many thanks for your kind words. Best, Babsje

  8. Great post, Babsje! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge about the bird and fishing!

  9. What clever birds 🙂 Thanks for sharing Babsje !

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