The bird with a dagger for a beak

By Larry Dablemont, Contributing Columnist
Posted 5/24/23

What I am fixin’ to tell you now about a fascinating bird, is not what I learned from the ornithology professors in college and what they taught about the great blue heron, it is from what I …

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The bird with a dagger for a beak


What I am fixin’ to tell you now about a fascinating bird, is not what I learned from the ornithology professors in college and what they taught about the great blue heron, it is from what I learned as a boy guiding float-fishermen down the Big Piney, and sitting on the front bench of our pool hall, listening to old-timers who seemed to have very little use for that bird.

“It was Ol’ Bill who noticed there were getting to be a lot of great blue herons on the river. He didn’t call them that, of course, he and everyone else called them ‘cranes’! When the Big Piney rivermen, which included my Grandpa, referred to them, they usually always said ‘them damn cranes’. They didn’t like the herons much. For one thing, they looked at them as fish eaters, and they didn’t give anything back to the hill people because they were not ‘fit to eat’. Many of the front bench regulars had tried them and never tried to eat one more than once. My grandpa said they were of dark meat, and about like trying to eat a merganser. Of course if you never tried to eat a merganser, then that wouldn’t mean much to you.

Serious talk in the pool hall reflected on the fact that the great blue heron was a fish eater, as were all the folks in Big Piney country. Herons ate all the fish they could spear with that dagger-like beak.

Ol’ Bill said he had seen one with a ten-inch goggle-eye in its beak, and Ol’ Jim decided to go him one better. He said he had seen one standing in the water on a shoal with a two- pound smallmouth in his mouth, holdin’ down a bigger one in the water with his foot.

I always realized that a heron could inflict very severe wounds with that strong dagger-like beak. Perhaps that is why a bobcat or coyote avoids them. I recall finding one caught on a limb-line many years ago and getting out my knife and going in close enough to free him. I might have been in serious danger. He looked at me menacingly with no regard to the fact I had likely saved him from an awful death.

Anyways, most outdoor writers will tell you stuff you can easily find in books, like how many eggs a blue heron lays and how he is an alternate host to those little yellow worms in smallmouth bass. Yellow grubs they call them… look that up on the Internet if you want. What it amounts to is, those little pennywinkle snails in the river and the bass and the herons of all species, are the trio which hosts different stages of that grub that you see in the meat of bass on all Ozark streams. And you might find all sorts of info on great blue herons in various bird books. But you won’t hear many outdoor writers tell you about how they would have killed twenty or so of them one time if had he had a gun. I would’ve!

It was a while back and I had floated down the Niangua River to camp overnight on a gravel bar beside a big eddy where I set a trotline expecting to land a big flathead catfish sometime during the night. You need to realize that blue herons love to build ‘rookeries’ in huge sycamores, and a rookery amounts to 12 or 15 or more nests in one tree.

Years back blue herons only nested down south in Arkansas and Louisiana swamp country but in time, likely only about 25 years ago, they started building those rookeries in the Ozarks. That night on the Niangua, I set my tent just upstream from a summer rookery. If you have never seen one, a heron rookery has one or two adult birds for every nest, and they are always loudly clucking and screeching all night long like herons do.

They do that in hot weather when they are incubating eggs or the nests have little ones. Do you know why they do that? Neither do I and neither does anyone else. They are loud, and fifteen or twenty of them in one big sycamore means you have a hard time sleeping. That night I thought they would stop the racket and go to sleep, but they didn’t.

I just stayed up all night and did in fact land a big 30 pound flathead about two in the morning while the herons cackled away. It was the only good thing I could say about that night! In my experiences on the river as a kid and in years since I cannot think of any thing concerning the blue heron that would make me want to brag on them.

They are very, very overpopulated and eat lots of bullfrogs! If they ate just only fish I could handle that, but I have little regard for anything that eats my bullfrogs. But then, they afford opportunities for photographs among novice river floaters who keep their cameras dry, like no other living thing on the river. That is about the best thing I can say about a blue heron. Any amateur photographer can get dozens of photos of herons, turtles and geese.

In writing about them, I refuse from now on to call them ‘Great’ blue herons! Except for their size, there is certainly nothing great about them!

You can see back issues of my magazines or my books on, but if you have missed some of my columns in local newspapers, see them on www.larrydablemontoutdoors. This week I will put some photos of blue herons on that website.