HENRY the heron came strolling down our street and there was rejoicing in the neighbourhood. He hadn’t been seen all year but we knew he would be back. He always arrived with the first hot weather of spring to patrol the streets of our Hobart suburb, looking for a tasty meal of skinks.
Zoologists say we should not anthropomorphise birds and animals, however some creatures of the wild, like penguins and herons, cry out to be given human characteristics. They appear to mirror human form and behaviour to such a degree that the comparisons become irresistible. A white-faced heron wandering our street in spring is not Egretta novaehollandiae, he’s Henry.
Perhaps by seeing ourselves in wild creatures we can better understand them. We can see that their daily struggle for survival is not so very different from our own. Their place in the great scheme of things is our place.
The arrival of Henry is traditionally such an event that residents of my street go out onto the pavement to welcome him. Neighbours knock on doors to say “Henry is back” and we all marvel at his stately gait and aristocratic air, and at how tame he is and how he lets us get close to him to admire his fine plumage, mixing different shades of blue-grey with a wash of magenta on the neck.
The spear of a beak looks a little fearsome but all the neighbours know it’s not meant for them. It’s for the fish in the rivulet and the metallic skinks hiding in the rock gardens or between the cracks in the pavements.
Henry brings that place we call “the wild”’ to our suburb. Henry is the lush-green pasture in spring, the saltmarsh, the tumbling stream where it meets ocean. Henry is the smell of the sea, of salt and seaweed, penetrating a city street near the docks, Henry is a winged wonder that lifts our spirits, urges us to fly with him, distracts us on our way to the office, tells us that there is another world out there, beyond the window, beyond the pressures that rule our daily lives.
Henry must have pressures, too, but somehow he does show them. There’s no stress clinging to his languid body, no look of worry that you see worn by people standing at the suburban bus stop, or in the parking lot.
Today the heron of the suburb might be symbolic of that world beyond the picket fence, the hedgerow and car port but in other ages, on other continents, he has carried a different symbolism on his wings.
In China the heron represents strength, purity and long life. In Native American tradition the heron is associated with wisdom because it is noted as having superior judgment skills. In Egypt the heron is a symbol of creation while in Africa and Greece the heron is a messenger of the gods.
In some Australian Aboriginal cultures, the outline of the heron is written in the stars, as is the shape of the wedge-tailed eagle.
Henry the white-faced heron has a little routine in our street. He patrols the pavements until lunch time, snapping at skinks as he goes. When the sun rises high above his head at midday and the pavements become hot enough to give off a shimmering heat haze, Henry retreats to shaded drives and gardens, including my own, to hunt skinks there.
Many a summer day I have hidden behind the curtains to witness Henry’s deadly craft without distracting him from his business. A favourite hunting place is a rockery covered in a rosemary bush. He also chases insects across our lawn and he sometimes does this, wings outstretched, in a display of bird ballet, bouncing on lanky yellow legs, pirouetting as the crickets and spiders get between his long, scaly toes.
White-faced herons, common across Australia, are the members of the heron, egret and bittern family most likely to be encountered in Tasmania, particularly in the suburbs, where they have become quite tame for a naturally timid species. A popular name for the heron in Tasmania is the blue crane.
By mid-afternoon Henry tires of skinks and the great skink hunt and flies on his broad wings, almost in slow motion, down to the rivulet at the end of our garden, where he takes a drink and then wades in the cool waters tumbling over the rocks.
I’m relieved to see Henry down by the stream. He always appears exposed and vulnerable out on the wide sweep of tarmac and concrete pavement and, although the residents of our street watch out for him, passing motorists have in the past shown little respect for our wildlife, with Bennett’s wallaby deaths commonplace.
Henry had one last season in him before the season of herons came to an end.
A few days after Henry reappeared after winter, my nearest neighbour banged on the door to say that Henry had been in his backyard for a full hour, sleeping with his head in his feathers and showing little interest in skinks.
We watched Henry closely and it soon became apparent why he did not look his normal self. When he finally moved, startled by a passing car, it was clear one of his legs was injured, possibly broken. With protective glasses to shield our eyes from that dagger beak, we set out to catch the heron but succeeded only in putting him to flight, where a dangling leg indicated it was broken. A little later my neighbour tried again, using a bedsheet, and was successful.
Another resident of our street arranged for Henry to be seen by a vet, and our worst fears were confirmed: the leg was indeed broken and beyond repair. The reasons for the injury were unclear, but we could only surmise Henry was hit by a car. He was clearly in considerable pain and distress, so there was nothing for it but to euthanase him.
That whole summer, although Henry had gone, I still found myself watching out for him when I reversed from our drive. Then I remembered Henry lie buried at the bottom of my garden, under a petal-strewn mound on the bank of the stream he so loved to fish.
And on Sunday afternoons, when the whipper-snippers and the lawnmowers and the garden shears came out, grown men in our street were seen to have a tear in their eye.