There are about 60 species of heron worldwide of which there are 19 in Southern Africa. White herons are known as egrets, the cattle egret perhaps being the best known to us as they follow cattle in the veld waiting for them to stir up insects to eat. If you see a bird flying with its neck tucked into a sort of ‘S’ you can be sure it is a heron, as no other bird has this characteristic. The question is ‘How did Heron get this Break in his Neck?’

The Bushmen tell us that Jackal threatened to fly up and devour Dove and all her chicks if Dove refused to throw out a chick for Jackal to eat. Heron saw how distraught Dove was and told her not to worry as Jackal could not fly up to harm her as he had no wings. Jackal was very angry with Heron. One day he found Heron at a cool pond looking for frogs. “What a long neck you have’ said the Jackal “Does the wind not break it in half.?”

“No!” replied Heron “the harder the wind blows the lower I stretch it, like this” With that Jackal gave his neck such a hard crack in the middle that it broke. From that day to this Heron has a bend in his neck.

Science, however, tells us {in Handbook of the Birds of the World} that “The Ardeidae {herons} is a group of birds highly specialized in the capture of live prey, mainly in the water. The neck forms a characteristic kinked S-shape, due to the elongated structure of the sixth cervical vertebrae. In general, the bird can retract and extend its neck with great ease, and it is usually drawn back in flight. All this specialization of the neck is related to the use of the bill as a harpoon for capturing prey”

Apart from the Cattle Egret, the herons one is most likely to see in the Eastern Free State are the Black-headed and the Grey. These are tall, slender birds with long bills and long legs usually found standing still for long periods next to water and vleis. The Grey seldom moves away from water whereas the Blackheaded is often seen in grassland and crop fields. They are both more or less gray in colour but the Blackheaded has black on his crest and back of the neck whereas the Grey is white.

The Grey is easily recognized by the black patch on his wing tip; he has a yellow beak whereas the Blackheaded has a dark bill and black legs. These birds are usually solitary by day but roost in large numbers in trees next to the water at night.

Author: Craig Walters

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