They stand motionless in the river, statues of pure white, pillars of slate gray. Eyes fixed on the water. Watching. Waiting.
These still-as-stone creatures are egrets and herons -- great egrets and great blue herons, to be exact. Many people have asked me about them this month, as the birds are convening conspicuously in the Fox River. They've made rubberneckers out of many drivers and passers-by. It's hard not to notice these statuesque birds.
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Belonging to a group called wading birds, great egrets and great blue herons stand tall on stilt-like legs in the shallows of the river. They are, for the most part, solitary predators but they may congregate in areas where food is abundant. In this drought year, their dining area has dwindled as water levels have dropped, drawing as many as two dozen egrets and herons to one spot.
These birds are paragons of patience. No fast food junkies here. Instead, they operate on faith that the food eventually will come to them. So, they wait. And they wait some more. Once in a while they advance with slow, deliberate steps through the water. Then, more waiting.
The stealth strategy works well enough for them. When a fish to its liking swims by, an egret or heron will strike with lightning speed, thrusting its spear-like bill into the water.
While a heron may "receive in great patience the river's providence," as Wendell Berry wrote in his poem "The Heron," sometimes it helps the process along. According to Kane County Audubon president Bob Andrini, great blue herons may place twigs and grass on top of the water to attract the attention of small fish.
"When the minnows are drawn to the movement," he said, "the great blue heron now has its food." (Andrini said he's tried this fishing method but it hasn't worked.)
While fish are the mainstay of heron and egrets' menu, they'll also snatch up frogs, snakes, and crustaceans from the water.
The knobby-kneed, skinny legs of these wading birds are well suited for the task at hand. They are long enough to negotiate shallow water, and the feet are specially adapted to life in the muck. Three long toes point forward, and one points backward. The middle front toe is equipped with comb-like edges for preening. The comb distributes powder down, a product of specially frayed feathers. Combing the body with powder down cleans mud and impurities from the feathers.
Both these species nest in treetop colonies called rookeries. They construct their nests on large stick platforms, ending up with a disheveled looking bunch of sticks.
The birds leave their rookeries each morning to spend long day fishing in rivers and marshes. You'll often see them flying in the evening, head back home for the night.
Although great blue herons and great egrets share many traits, each species is quite distinctive. The great blue heron is, as its name implies, a great big bird -- but it's not exactly blue. Slate gray is more like it. The heron towers above other birds, standing four feet tall on long gray legs. In flight, it spreads its wings an impressive six feet from tip to tip. In breeding season, the heron is decorated with long black plumes on the back of the neck. The heron's harpoon-like bill is yellow, and the intense eyes are golden.
The great egret isn't as tall as the great blue heron. Adult egrets grow to three feet in height. Their wingspans average a little over four feet. And, while the great blue heron's long legs are gray, the egret's are black.
And speaking of color, the great egret can be described with many adjectives, but most of all, it's white. Stunningly white. It adds white to white in the breeding season when it grows long, lacy feathers on its tail. The only touch of color contrasting with the white feathers is the yellow bill, which is just as formidable as the great blue heron's.
Both species tuck their necks in flight for better aerodynamics. The great egret is as graceful in air as it is in water. The great blue heron, however, has the gestalt of a Pterodactyl, beating its huge wings slowly and deliberately.
When standing, the egret has an elegant and refined appearance, striking a graceful pose in the water by extending its neck. When the great blue heron takes its stoic stance in the water, it looks like a creature from the prehistoric coal swamps.
Both species can be found in Kane County, thanks to habitat improvement and legislation protecting these birds. It hasn't always been so. In the early 1900s bird feathers (and entire birds) were used to decorate women's hats. Egret feathers were highly sought after -- particularly the long feathers of breeding plumage, known as "aigrettes" (hence the name "egret"). Egrets and herons were killed by the thousands, only to be plucked for their feathers.
The millinery industry paid exorbitant prices for this booty, as ornithological hats became all the rage. It is said that in 1903, the value of egret feathers reached $80 per ounce, more than twice their weight in gold.
Egrets were among the hardest hit for hats. Adults were harvested in the breeding season when their feathers were prime -- which happened to be when broods of young were still in the nest. Nestlings perished when the adults were killed. Great egrets were threatened with extinction as their numbers plummeted.
Some people took notice, and took action. Public outcry eventually led to legislation protecting these (and all) birds from the fashion industry. This was the beginning of the Audubon Society, and the great egret became the symbol of the nationwide conservation organization.
Egrets and herons have inspired prose, poetry, and painting. They are woven throughout the legends and mythology of native peoples. Herons symbolize good luck, patience, and balance in life. Egrets, peace, harmony and grace.
I'll take any of the above. When I see herons and egrets in the river, I am compelled to pause. I listen for their primal call which is, as author Barry Lopez wrote, "the sound of the birth of rivers."
Take a moment to watch them. Stop the car if you have to. Admire, and be inspired.
• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.