A story of a heron and her two keepers

February 22, 2011 

This story begins five years ago in a tree next to a cliffside park in Shell Beach. There, up in a large tree, nested a family of black-crowned night herons, including 13 baby chicks.

Neighbors Sue Sloan and Terry Lilley knew of the night herons in this tree and surrounding trees and enjoyed watching them when they swooped down to eat small sea creatures.

One day, they came home to find the tree had been chopped down by the property owners. They rushed over to find that only two chicks had survived, the rest having been killed by the fall, and observed two adult herons flying in circles above where the tree had stood.

The chicks, only a month old and not yet able to fly, were pecking worms out of the soil to survive.

Sue and Terry began to find worms for the chicks to eat. One chick went off on its own. The other was friendly and began to come near the caring humans. Thus began a relationship that lasted three years.

They fed the chick smelt, a type of fish, three times a day. The chick began following Sue to her nearby upstairs apartment. It did this until it was old enough to fly.

In turn, Sue and Terry led the heron down to the beach to show it how to forage for sea creatures, turning over rocks that hid the food underneath.

They determined the chick was a female when the heron developed the beautiful, blue-grey feathers and dark beak of a female in “heat.”

One day, Sue and Terry were walking to the seaside park when she swooped down on them suddenly. Sue ducked, yelling, “Whoa, Nellie.” Terry said, “That’s it, that will be her name: Nellie.”

As Nellie grew and learned to fly, she would visit them in the early morning and the evening, when it was feeding time, then sit awhile with them. She would light on their shoulders or their legs.

Sue and Terry were careful not to tame her, so they wouldn’t “pet” her. They wanted her to remain wild with the other night herons nearby. They knew that Nellie had a mate and chicks, but her family didn’t come near the humans.

Night herons are large birds and noisy during mating season, which is February to April. They make loud “quoking” noises, leaving abundant droppings.

For this reason, many residents cut the trees down or back to discourage the birds from nesting. Terry and Sue worked hard to discourage cutting the trees down in the neighborhood.

These herons do not migrate, remaining in the same neighborhood throughout their lives. One tree holds several generations of a family, from babies to grandparents.

Sue says they are not endangered, but because of the rampant cutting of trees they nest in, they are threatened. Federal law prohibits cutting down trees during mating season but is not enforced.

Nellie came around to Sue’s house for three years, then stopped two years ago. It was a special time for Sue and Terry and sad when Nellie’s visits ended. More information and photos can be found on www.pbase.com/lilley/nellie.

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