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I Spy with my False Eye — Daily Prompt: The Artist’s Heron’s Eye

The catfish was small as catfish go – less than a foot – but she was crafty, and swished her way deeper under the cover of vegetation lining the shore.

But she was no match for the great blue heron, who swooped in with that stiletto beak and speared the catfish through, the yellow beak tip protruding in stark contrast to the dark fish skin.

Great blue heron washing a fresh-caught catfish, showing false eye on each shoulder.

Great blue heron washing a fresh-caught catfish, showing false eye (aka eyespot) on each shoulder.

Herons often “clean” their prey before swallowing, and this was no exception. As the heron flew-hopped further out into the shallows, I could see why: the catfish was wrapped in a large oak leaf, stirred up from the muck along the shore.

What followed was epic. The heron dunked the catfish beneath the surface and quickly dispatched the oak leaf debris. The heron then dipped the catfish again under the water, bringing it up to maneuver into swallowing position. The catfish squirmed, and flopped, and swished in the heron’s beak. The heron again lowered the catfish under the water and brought it back up again. And again. And again.This went on for nearly half an hour.

I have watched herons try to subdue catfish before, and each time the catfish has prevailed. This day was no exception, as on a final attempt at submerging and then retrieving the catfish, the heron came up empty beaked. He scoured the area with first his beak and then foot, to no avail.

Later that night, looking at the photos from that session, I noticed something I’d never realized before: the “shoulder patches” of dark feathers (that adult herons develop as a secondary sex characteristic) form the same kind of “false eye” or “eyespot” that certain moths, butterflies, and even fishes have. Look at the photo above, and you can see those eyes while the heron has his head and neck dipped far down. One theory around eyespots in other creatures is that they help protect against predators. I’m not aware of anyone applying that same theory to herons before, but I think the eyespots could have the same protective role – although a heron’s beak and clawed toes are formidable weapons, when a heron is fishing, it is in a very vulnerable position. Just as with moths, then, their false eyes might make the herons appear less vulnerable.

So, as they say, that’s my story theory and I’m sticking to it.

Thanks for the Daily Prompt nudge, Michelle W and WordPress.

(This took place May 17, 2009)

© 2013 Babsje. (

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