The Great Blue Heron: Icon and Ethos
SPIRIT OF PLACE
Out of their loneliness for each other
two reeds, or maybe two shadows, lurch
forward and become suddenly a life
lifted from dawn or the rain. It is
the wilderness come back again, a lagoon
with our city reflected in its eye.
We live by faith in such presences.
It is a test for us, that thin
but real, undulating figure that promises,
“if you keep faith I will exist
at the edge, where your vision joins
feet that go down in the mud where the truth is.”
— William Stafford
“My grandmother knows where some big birds live in the tops of tall trees,” the young girl said. “Really!” replied the urban naturalist leading the extracurricular excursion. That young girl’s simple statement led to a succession of events confirming Portland’s civic love affair with the great blue heron.
Nestled between a public golf course, now called Heron Lakes, and a North Portland industrial area, the big birds and their big nests had gone virtually unnoticed. Large buildings blocked the view from the street. Golfers were more interested in other kinds of birdies. Even the Fish and Wildlife services and Audubon Society were unaware of the thriving heron rookery near Delta Park. Urban rookeries are rare and unexpected. And Portland had just discovered its second rookery within its city limits.
A far more visible rookery on Ross Island, a mile south of the central city, had long made heron sighting a common Portland occurrence. The gargantuan birds often swooped along the Willamette River past downtown skyscrapers. The usually skittish birds had become accustomed to dredging activity on Ross Island just as they had to golfers at Delta Park. At neither site did humans take notice of them or approach them.
Word of the new rookery spread. Organized outings to view courtship rituals, nest building and the feeding frenzy at nesting time enthralled, inspired and energized residents, officials and business owners. Audubon types, fish and wildlife gurus and closet heron lovers exchanged ideas.
The possibility of an alternative route for heavy traffic through the newly found nesting site loomed on State Transportation Department drawing boards. Would the rookery be disrupted or abandoned? Would people care?
Around this time, fish and wildlife experts happened to converge in Portland for a conference. The city’s colorful mayor welcomed them to town. A man of the people, he was noted for pedaling around town on an old bicycle or poling his canoe Venetian-style through Portland’s waterways. In his speech, the mayor waxed eloquently about his fascination with the great blue heron. The urban naturalist who’d followed the young girl’s tip now stalked the mayor.
The mayor’s fascination with the heron was real. One of his prized possessions in the mayoral suite was an old heron decoy. Its later disappearance caused columnists to chuckle over the heron heist and the mayor to wail plaintively.
But, not to get ahead of ourselves, the mayor and the urban naturalist concocted a scheme to designate the great blue heron Portland’s official city bird. The much heralded proclamation came in December, 1986. Celebrants imbibed Blue Heron Ale on tap at the Bridgeport Brewery. Now bottled, it has become a Northwest favorite.
Oregon’s Poet Laureate, William Stafford, wrote the accompanying poem to honor the city council action. It touched a chord.
Asphalt and concrete, dredging and bulldozing, deteriorating water quality, household cats and increasing development had not yet displaced the city’s cautious herons. Fish, frogs, field mice and all other creatures that this bird depends upon were still in abundance. To accommodate the voracious appetites of their young, herons require isolated nesting spots in groves of towering trees in close proximity to an adequate source of food. That food must be available in nearby rivers, lakes, meadows, wetlands and sloughs. Thus the heron was more than just a comic regal character, fascinating to observe. The presence of its rookeries within the city limits was an indication of healthy terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Portland was justly proud that two rookeries remained within the city.
Five years later on a bluff above Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge where Ross Island herons feed, a fifty foot by seventy foot mural of a giant heron in a natural setting replaced the blank wall of the Portland Memorial Mausoleum. It was created, with the concurrence of the owner, by a coterie of local artists and artisans.
Another group of local artists won a national competition to design a whimsical sculpture to forecast the weather at Portland’s central city block, Pioneer Courthouse Square. To Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” each day at noon when stormy, blustery weather is predicted, a silvery blue heron rises from a globe in a spray of mist atop the weather machine.
Great Blue Heron Week has been celebrated each June since the new rookery was discovered. It has a growing list of educational activities and community festivities. It culminates the seventy to ninety day nesting period. It celebrates the new life of fledglings about to leave the nest and the environment necessary to sustain them.
Like popular cult figures, the herons captivated those who went on viewing excursions. Their size made them easy for anyone to observe and identify. Supremely graceful in the air, clumsy and comical on takeoff and cranky when disturbed, the heron’s personality is replete with popular appeal. Herons pair after an elaborate courtship ritual. Parents return to former platform nests of woven sticks lined with mosses, reeds and grasses. Over the years they gradually enlarge them from eighteen inches to four feet in width. Pairs incubate four or five blue-green eggs, turning them every two to four hours for twenty-eight days. Both parents feed fledglings for more than two months before they leave their nest.
It is both humorous and heart-wrenching to watch four foot tall adults with a wingspan of six feet repeatedly wend their way through tangled branches to feed their young. As the gawky, squabbling chicks grow, they elbow each other out of the way and sometimes out of the nest which can be 130 feet high.
Except at nesting time, they are solitary. Ever cautious and aloof, in wetlands they camouflage themselves stretching their long thin necks and lance-like beaks upwards among the reeds. At water’s edge they often hunker down in the early morning mist, retracting their necks into an S-shaped curve as they watch vigilantly for predator or prey. They can remain motionless for an hour. Their elusiveness emphasizes the preciousness of their presence in an urban setting.
Yet, they can react instantly to the slightest movement. Hunting or fishing, their strike is swift, precise and deadly. So cautious are they that herons or heron decoys are called “confidence birds” by hunters. They signify safety to approaching waterfowl. Their cries of alarm engender human affinity. When startled, great blue herons utter a raucous, guttural squawk, distinctively coarse and definitely cranky. The awkwardness with which they lift their heavy bodies into the air before soaring up and out with a slow, steady beat of their powerful wings seems to taunt us into thinking we could follow them. As they glide softly to a distant landing, they complete our flight of fantasy.
It is not their magnetism alone which tantalizes us. Their reliance on the same ecosystem on which we depend speaks just as eloquently to the mind. In Portland, the heron came to connote the value ascribed to wildlife in the city and the ecosystems necessary to sustain it. The heron attested to the livability of the city that city-dwellers wished to preserve.
The great blue heron became the icon for the movement to acquire an urban natural wildlife habitat system. When the heron became the city bird eleven years ago, the term “Metropolitan Greenspaces” did not exist. The heron spoke to the greater Portland psyche. In 1994, amid a decade of tax-revolt, voters in the tri-county Metro region approved a $135.6 million bond measure to preserve natural areas. At the victory party, celebrants relished Blue Heron Cheese from Tillamook along with their Blue Heron Ale.
Metropolitan Greenspaces, an urban, natural wildlife habitat and trails system, has made a good start in acquiring priority lands. It coordinates and publicizes a full calendar of events, educational offerings, guided tours, hikes, canoe trips and other opportunities to view and value urban wildlife. Within the region an environmental ethic appears to be thriving.
Yet the region is experiencing unparalleled growth and it plans to accommodate the burgeoning population by encouraging much higher density within urban growth boundaries. Up to this point, the movements to preserve natural urban open spaces and to discourage urban sprawl have worked hand in hand. It is a delicate balance in a growing city.
As land becomes more scarce and prices rise, pressures will mount. To “keep faith,” to sustain the environment and the ethos in which this magnificent icon can continue to flourish in the city, Portland’s citizens must keep their “heads in the light … and feet down in the mud where the truth is.”
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