It’s like a National Geographic special.
You can peer straight into these birds’ bulging, red-orange eyes. You can get close enough to touch (though you shouldn’t) the wispy, white head plumes that they sprout during mating season to lure a hottie. Like the famous swallows who return to the Capistrano region each spring, D.C.’s own black-crowned night-herons have been schlepping back to the National Zoo for more than a century for a safe oasis to raise their chicks.
Roughly 500 wild herons live behind the captive Bird House from May to August—about 200 adults and their babies, the zoo says.
“To see so many of them and to be able to get so close to them is a really unique birding experience in D.C.,” says Zach Slavin of the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia.
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The males start coming back in mid-March, says senior zookeeper Debi Talbott. They stake out their claims to one of about 100 “fixer-upper” nests in a clump of trees by the Bird House. “There is a lot of fighting and bickering going on, a lot of craziness,” says Talbott. By April, the 2-foot tall, black, gray, and white birds have hunkered down with their mates. The male often stands alongside his sweetie after swooping in with a choice twig for her to weave into their platter-sized nest.
By May, the real fun—and mayhem—starts. The chicks start to hatch out of their blue-green eggs and after that “it’s really noisy,” Talbott says. “The babies look like little gray fuzz balls. They look like a little Woodstock [from the Peanuts comic strip]…They are cute, cute, cute.”
From May 15 to Aug. 1 at 2 p.m. daily, the zoo feeds the herons so they don’t steal the captive birds’ food or any babies to feed to their own chicks. “They will eat anything,” Talbott says. “Baby mallards are a delicacy.”
Every day the zoo doles out about 40 pounds of fish and mice. The meal resembles a shark feeding frenzy, and it’s also great for close-up photo ops since the birds grow used to visitors. “They are not very shy,” said William Young, a local birder who wrote The Fascination of Birds. A zookeeper stands near the sign announcing the feeding, and tosses out defrosted mice and fish onto the fenced-in lawn. Adult herons dive for the morsels. Sometimes they miss the fish but manage to grab a mouthful of their neighbor’s feathers.
Outside of the zoo, the “adults do most of their hunting in Rock Creek” and along the Potomac River, says Howard Youth in his new book, Field Guide to the Natural World of Washington, D.C. They silently stalk their fish feasts, beginning at dusk, which is why most folks never even glimpse these normally nocturnal birds. The herons resemble hunchbacks as they skulk around with their heads coiled close to their compact bodies. They stretch their somewhat short necks when they spear a fish.
Even zoo visitors likely miss the March and April courting displays as they appear to occur by their treetop nests instead of close to humans’ prying eyes. “Courtship begins with the male birds bowing, stretching, rocking from foot to foot, hissing, and bill clapping as they display for the females,” the zoo says on its Web site. The herons hang out together, preening each other and rubbing their pointy black bills over each others’ heads, necks, and backs. Males and females look about the same, but the male is a tad larger. They have black heads and backs with gray wings and white to pale gray bellies. Their chicks are brown with white streaks, and they have yellow-orange eyes.
The closest nests are right over the walkway by the wood stork exhibit. You don’t even need to look up to find them. Just look for the white-spattered paths, or follow the “wok, wok, wok” squawking.
The kiddies hang out with their brothers and sisters near their nests until late June or July. That’s when they test out their nearly 4-foot wingspan and learn to fly.
By the end of August, most of the birds have migrated south. But this past winter, one stuck around the zoo. Since the cold was unusually brutal, Talbott gave it a little help. “I fed him every single day,” she says, and provided him a heat lamp.
The year before, another heron camped out in Georgetown instead of soaring south along the East Coast toward Florida, Cuba, or Hispaniola, as the birds typically do. It was discovered through an experimental tracking program that began two years ago.
“We track many species all over the world but we have never tracked this population of wild birds in our own backyard, so to speak,” says Amy Scarpignato of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which runs the program with the zoo. In 2013, they outfitted three adult birds with satellite-transmitting “backpacks,” and the following year, they experimented with cell-phone based transmitters on six herons. This year, they plan to test three newly improved satellite-backpacks beginning in June, and they will post the movements online.
One of the birds that tested the device was dubbed “Russ.” Last year, the heron wintered about 1,100 miles away, near Miami, and migrated back to the zoo this spring. Russ was named for the late Russell Greenberg, who founded the SMBC, invented the concept of “shade-grown” coffee as a bird-friendly product, and started International Migratory Bird Day, which is traditionally celebrated the second Saturday in May. The zoo is celebrating that day (May 9) with Bird Fest 2015, featuring close-up encounters with birds.
The center also uses low-tech methods to track some of the herons. Some of the adults and juveniles wear color-coded bands on their legs. The critters have been spotted around D.C. and in the suburbs, including Maryland’s Sligo Creek and Lake Braddock in Fairfax. Bird watchers can report sightings of tagged animals away from zoo environs to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.
“So,” Scarpignato says, “keep an eye out for any of the banded herons both at the zoo and even in your neighborhood.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery