Tuesday 19 November 2019

Grey 'diceman' poised for strike

Harmless-looking: Hungry herons have no scruples as trenchermen
Harmless-looking: Hungry herons have no scruples as trenchermen

Joe Kennedy

Barn owls were encouraged to make homes in farm buildings long ago. Apertures in stone outhouses eased their comings and goings.

They nested high where slate met old mortared walls. There was a practical reason for this easy relationship between farmer and bird of prey: Young rats were a major part of the birds' diet; they kept numbers under control.

There were also outdoor cats and trapping on farms and, later, poisoned bait was laid to curb vermin. But this eventually led to a crash in owl numbers as the birds ingested the affected quadrupeds. These rats were easy prey. The owls died slowly. I once picked up a dead barn owl in a yard. It was skin and bone but well feathered. I took it to a taxidermist. These birds have welcoming faces. It now stands in some quiet nook.

Rats are also part of the varied diet of grey herons or 'cranes,' as they are misnamed in some places, from folk memories of the much larger bird which rarely visits now from mainland Europe. Francis Ledwidge mentions a "hungry crane" in his youthful poem Behind the Closed Eye, composed from his apprentice time in a hostelry, the Yellow House in Rathfarnham, from where, lonely for Slane, he walked home never to return.

Last week, a regular Slane reader sent me a photograph of a "Ledwidge crane" perched on a tree trunk overlooking the Boyne at an old lock where varying water levels might more easily reveal small fish.

Herons are usually loners where there is water and timber. I have watched one at a park pond where its territory leads to a stream where fish would be scarce.

But I had forgotten the mallards. The harmless-looking heron, admired for its sentinel patience, alert to the fluff and feather swirl of ducklings shepherded by an anxious mother, struck like a gannet in splashing turmoil. Ducklings may seem to be a culinary treat but the grey 'dicemen' have no scruples as trenchermen. Rats, mice, beetles, kittens, dog bowl contents and sea piracy -landing on cormorants' backs for fish seizures - are tales from the sidelines. Ornamental ponds are easy pickings. One man, advised to place nylon line, heron-breast high, around his pond, was in despair when the razor-beaked predator stooped underneath to snatch a goldfish. Placing a plastic replica bird on a pond island as a scarecrow didn't work either. The heron examined the dummy and then proceeded to mount it until it collapsed into the mud.

The birds usually roost in tree colonies which can be evil-smelling. They make curious noises, mostly a gruff, harsh "frank". I once counted 15 adolescent birds standing in estuary mud observing the fishing tactics of their elders.

It is difficult to imagine these birds were once embellishments for baronial feasts, being skinned, stuffed and roasted.

Brian Vesey-FitzGerald, one-time editor of The Field, who sampled varied wild produce in his lifetime, said he found eating heron a "loathsome experience", resembling childhood memories of "a box of paints". But perhaps that was about a shelduck, or shield-drake, a colourful shorebird, often mistaken for a goose. It's all to do with diet, I suppose.

Sunday Independent

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