It has been a season (‘tis the season) for rare birds.
After Christmas, my husband, Larry, a friend, Scott and I were out and about when the phone rang. It was Carol Kelly from Medicine River Wildlife Centre. Could we go to Bower subdivision to catch a mystery bird that a dog had chased under a tree? Sure, we could, but we weren’t really prepared.
We had no net or gloves with us, but did have a box to put the bird in.
We arrived by the skating rinks and saw the lady who had called it in, waiting for us. When I got out of the car, she looked at my T-shirt and said, “That looks like the bird.”
She was talking about the Great Blue Heron pictured on the front of my shirt. I immediately thought, “No, probably not.” But my saying, “You never say ‘never’ when you’re talking about birds” kicked into play.
I looked over at the spruce tree and said, “It’s a Night Heron!”
The three of us headed over to the tree to surround the bird. As I walked I was taking my coat off to use as a net. I thought I could throw it over the bird. As we got closer, the bird seemed to get very agitated. All of a sudden, it threw up its wings and leaped over at Scott, who by this time was under the spruce tree and I couldn’t see him.
He started to yell so I dove under the tree and found the bird had latched onto his finger and wasn’t going to let go. I had to pry the beak open to extricate Scott’s finger and then I got a good firm grip on his beak before I picked up the rest of the body.
We got the bird back to our house and did a bit of an exam on the bird. I could find no breaks in the wings and I didn’t think he was too skinny but it’s hard to tell that sort of thing with herons and bitterns. But this bird was fierce.
He proceeded to scream and bite Larry, despite our precautions. So in time both Larry and Scott walked around sporting band-aids. I felt a bit superior because I hadn’t been bitten yet. I shouldn’t have felt that way because the next time we had to give the bird its medicine, he got me too.
This fellow is a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron. This is the first time one of this species has come into Medicine River.
We’re not exactly sure what’s wrong with him nor why he was in Red Deer. Carol couldn’t find any breaks either. Even though he’s bitten three of us he seems a bit weak and wobbly.
That’s a bit hard to tell though, too because every time you go into the cage to treat him, he flops over on his side with his wings up. Obviously this is a defensive position but when we would sneak a peak at him, he looked a bit woozy.
So we’re thinking this may be a case of starvation. We tried putting smelts in a bowl of water for him but he wouldn’t eat that. Consequently, we’ve been stuffing Nutrical down his throat. Nutrical is what we give to severely emaciated animals before starting them on real food.
I did a bit of research on Black-crowned Night Herons and found that, as the name implies, they are nocturnal birds. They roost in trees during the day and come out at dusk to hunt. They eat aquatic invertebrates, fish, amphibians, lizards, snakes, rodents, eggs, and the like.
I think there is a breeding colony of them near Alix. I’ve seen them by Alix but also by Nose Hill Creek near Calgary and near Leduc, as well as in more exotic locals: Mexico and Costa Rica.
These herons should have left the province in September. You would think that if this particular bird had been in Red Deer since then, someone should have seen it. So we’re thinking that maybe its been working its way slowly south from a more northern breeding area.
Anyhow, it’s now out at Medicine River getting all the care it needs and hopefully it’ll survive and we’ll be able to release it in the spring.
Judy Boyd is a naturalist with the Red Deer River Naturalists.