Here, we’ll meet the real skulkers of the heron clan, as well as the ever elegant and haughty egrets that dazzle in white. The handful of hunchbacks we’ll see are the pond heron (aka paddybird), the little heron, and the night heron, and their even more introverted cousins, reed-loving bitterns, before going on to the slim, effete egrets — all of which belong to the heron family (Ardeidae).
If you’ve walked along a river, jheel, lake, or large pond, you will have at some time been startled by the dazzling flash of white wings of a pond heron (Ardeola grayii). The hitherto invisible birds rise from the ground and sway low over the water with an irritable “kwaark”! Pond herons love standing guard at the edges of such waterbodies at regular intervals, reminding me of the morose policemen doing sentry duty for some pompous passing VIP. The herons, of course, with their streaky brown uniforms and gimlet lemon eyes, are only watching out for frogs and fish and other little creatures they can harpoon. This dumpy little heron stands just 45 cm tall and is dressed in browns and greys cleverly streaked to resemble sheaves of dappled dried grass. When suddenly unfurled, its dazzling white wings are probably meant to startle predators (like crocodiles) so the heron can make a getaway in time. During the breeding season — around the monsoon — both sexes change into a lacy maroon outfit with a couple of fashionable crest feathers, which rise and fall on excitement. They may be found stalking around in paddy fields too, like their cousins, the egrets, gobbling insects disturbed by livestock hooves. Pond herons nest in colonies in trees and are found all over India.
More secretive and less common is the little heron (nee little green; Butorides striata). A little smaller than the pond heron, its dark green-black plumage is beautifully scalloped, giving it a bronzed hue. I first encountered a pair at the edges of a large, filthy pond on the Northern Ridge in Delhi, near my home, around twilight. They reminded me of secret agents out on an assignment. Alas, subsequent sightings, one in Goa in broad daylight and the second at Bharatpur where the heron fished unconcerned at the edge of the water, a few metres from hundreds of noisy tourists, dispelled this hush-hush image forever.
Black-crowned night herons
Perhaps the smartest of the trio are the black-crowned night herons (Nycticorax nycticorax). In black, ash-grey and white with ruby eyes and two snazzy white plumes at the backs of their heads, they always remind me of neatly uniformed traffic cops. But alas, their posture is even worse than that of their cousins, and they’re stubbier in appearance, hiding away in the depths of trees by waterbodies. They too prefer the darker hours, dusk and dawn, when they fly out to fish, their squat silhouettes like those of flying foxes. They nest in colonies, and one recently established one near my home at the Yamuna Biodiversity Park near Wazirabad in Delhi. Their young are spotty and splotched in dark brown (rather like pond herons), and very different from their smart parents.
Easily the most introverted and secretive are the clan of bitterns. They camouflage themselves as reeds and crouch amidst reed beds. If they perceive a Code Red threat, they stand to attention, their necks and beaks outstretched to resemble the reeds surrounding them. If flushed, they fly low and swift, streaks of ginger and russet visible. There are five species in the country, all described as “widespread residents”. Of these, I have caught glimpses of the little, the black, the cinnamon, and yellow bittern, but I have not made their acquaintance to my satisfaction. Unlike their heron cousins, bitterns nest amidst reed beds. In the breeding season (monsoon), however, they blow their cover by “booming” — sending out low-frequency calls across the reeds to attract mates.
In complete contrast are snow-white egrets, birds which anyone on a drive past fields or walking by a waterbody will have noticed. The great egret (Ardea alba), a tall (almost grey-heron tall) dazzler, stands straight and upright, as does its slightly shorter cousin, the intermediate or median egret. The little egret (Egretta garzetta), the most delicate of the lot, is smaller and sports fancy yellow booties. Familiar cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis) stalk about in paddy fields and meadows where the deer and antelope (and buffalo) roam. They’d be snapping up insects and small reptiles disturbed by hooves and cleaning animals’ ears and hides of ticks and leeches. Riding bareback on the bovines, the egrets can spot an approaching predator — a tiger or leopard — early and fly off en masse, warning their hosts too. During the breeding season (the monsoons), the large egret sports lacy white plumes on its back, the intermediate egret a waterfall of plumes down its back and breast, as does the little egret — with a bonus of a crest comprising of satiny snow-white plumes. The holier-than-thou cattle egret daubs its face and head with saffron during this time. In all four, both sexes dress alike and bring up their very bratty young in platform-like nests in colonies.
Their lacy white plumes (called aigrettes) nearly spelt doom for egrets back in the 1930s when they became a fashion rage in the West as accessories for women’s hats. Millions of birds were systematically slaughtered during their breeding season — the parents were killed and stripped of their finery; the chicks left to starve. Fortunately, better sense eventually prevailed, and the idiotic fashion died out before the birds did.
Some herons may be loners, but I’ve watched flocks of egrets fish cooperatively, forming a ring in the shallows then beating their wings together in a snowstorm of white and panicking the fish which they deftly harpoon. Sadly, cattle egrets seem to be changing their dietary habits too — and I’ve spotted them, looking somewhat sullied, on garbage dumps, looking for fast food takeaway. But you can still be held spellbound when you watch a squadron weave across the sky in a “V”, their translucent pearl-white wings beating in a relaxed rhythm as they head for the nearest fishing grounds, or alas, trash heap.