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Great Blue Herons

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

I know an elderly lady in Rock Island who took her wren house down when she discovered that wrens were not faithful to their mates. Humans she could forgive for that kind of behavior, but the rest of God's creatures are supposed to live sinless lives, as they did in Eden.

I wonder what she would have done had a flock of great blue herons wandered up from a Mississippi River island and established a rookery in her back yard. They may be faithful, but they can spoil an Eden in other ways. The blue heron holds the record for turning beautiful suburbs of trees into tenements all along the Upper Mississippi Valley.

Standing alone along the shore in early morning, the great blue heron is a magnificent creature, four feet tall with a wingspan of six feet. Their elegant slate blue plumage once sold for $32 an ounce for use in fine ladies’ hats. In 1902, a single auction of heron feathers brought more than a million and a half dollars.

Unfortunately, the blue heron has almost no concern for keeping house. Herons nest in colonies, or rookeries, of as many as two or three thousand birds, fifty feet up at the tops of stands of trees on islands or river shoreline. Here they quarrel with each other and push their droppings over the nests where they collect at the base of the trees.

That's how you locate a heron rookery—by the smell—should you ever want to find one. The smell is enhanced by the habit of young birds regurgitating their dinner when excited. Ornithologists report being caught in a rain of ten-inch dead bullheads underneath a heron rookery.

Eventually, all these droppings pile up so high at the base of the trees that the trees die, forcing the slovenly herons to find another rookery. Come to think if it, maybe that's what did Eden in back there in Genesis, making life so unpleasant there for Adam and Eve that they had to leave.

That's why you don't want a flock of great blue herons to find your back yard. Unless, of course, you're into crafts. Pull out a supply of discarded blue plumes from the muck, clean them up as best you can, and you've got yourself a fancy hat.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.