Another life: The heron: an ungainly bird who kills with pointed precision
‘When the wind is southerly,” said Hamlet, “ I know a hawk from a handsaw.” This weighty but baffling pronouncement has set a whole generation of students begging Google to explain what the hell he meant. There they can discover the bard borrowing from a volatile vernacular in which a “heronshaw” was slurred into the carpenter’s tool: Hamlet, as he vowed, could tell the hunter from the hunted.
A heronshaw was a young and tender heron served, suitably spiced, at royal banquets, among them Henry II’s blow-outs for Irish kings in Dublin Castle. The heron was then a prime quarry, its assault by the falconer’s peregrine a dramatic aerial spectacle reserved for nobles. Even a heronry’s nests and eggs were protected by royal decree.
What prompted this etymological chase was a letter from different times. Sue Hackett wrote from Currabinny, Co Cork, to tell of benevolence extended to a heron looking “very sad and bedraggled”, with photo enclosed, on the adjacent shore of Cork harbour. A neighbour threw the bird raw fish, which was avidly accepted. Indeed, it soon followed her home, and now, in splendid shape, visits her garden to wait for breakfast – a sight that pleases everybody on the Currabinny terrace when they open their curtains in the morning.
Some time ago another missive, from Dock Street in central Galway, told of a heron “that knocks on my neighbour’s door with its beak – looking for food, no less. He likes cooked sausages, any type of fish, raw or cooked, potatoes only if they’re mashed.”
Known to some as “Ralph”, the heron became a familiar of the city’s riverside Long Walk, and inspired laconic, sometimes touching, exchanges on boards.ie: “He does head off for a while every now and again and doesn’t say where he’s going.”
“Tame” herons are no more opportunist than Galway’s swans gathered for the Angelus or the mallards of St Stephen’s Green in Dublin wolfing the last shreds of office butties. But it must all be set against the inherent wildness of this big, ungainly bird – ungainly, that is, except for the focused and deadly precision of its own hunting skills.
These were beautifully described by Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey, himself a notable 19th-century stalker of shootable ducks along the winter estuaries of the west.
“When [the heron] moves along the shore,” he wrote (in The Fowler in Ireland, 1882), “he lifts his legs with the utmost silence and hesitation, poising each foot in the air ere placing it down, as if he were a slider feeling his way on thin ice, or a pointer drawing up to partridges in turnips. The feet of a heron are so soft and limber that he can stand anywhere on anything; his toes bend round a stone or amongst sticks as a starfish clings to a rough rock. . .”