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Shikepoke surprise

By STEVE VANTREESE outdoors@paducahsun.com

Anybody who roots around in wet areas of west Kentucky typically is going to know the raspy "skeow" or the occasional "kuk-kuk-kuk" of the flushed shikepoke.

Way back when, the shikepoke seemed to be the most commonly encountered bigger bird that got kicked up along a pond or creek bank or along the edge of some stinking swamp. Shikepokes always seemed to go with the territory.

As a kid, I stirred around with shikepokes for years before learning that they are little green herons.

The little green heron, traditional bearer of the colloquial shikepoke name, is a smallish heron, a relative squirt as a cousin to the looming great blue heron hereabouts.

The green heron is no more than about 18 inches tall on its modestly short yellow legs. Its crow-sized body is kind of an iridescent green -- that looks blue in most light -- on the back and upper head. The bird's undercarriage is a chestnut brown. The bird has a crest of feathers on its head, but is hardly noticeable unless hoisted aloft in display.

This heron has a fairly short neck, especially compared to the great blue, that seems to disappear altogether when it hunches up at rest. The tail is pretty short, too.

Our shikepoke has a stout, dagger-like bill that is used for snatching its prey. The predatory bird is mostly a fisherman, adept at stand-and-wait vigils around the edge of water bodies. This heron doesn't wade nearly as much as its longer-legged relatives, but rather it ambush hunts on pond, creek and river banks -- sometimes concealing itself in cover -- and catches small fish and minnows when they swim by within reach. Frogs, crayfish and other small critters also are on the menu.

The green heron is said to be capable of swimming and even diving to catch fish, but that doesn't seem to be routine behavior. While most of the longer-legged wetland birds, the taller herons and egrets, most often stand out in the open in shallow water bodies, the shikepoke hangs out around the shores.

Its chosen hunting area -- or maybe the hunting area to which nature relegated it by bestowing shorter legs -- nonetheless seems to provide adequate groceries for the green heron. Maybe that's because the shikepoke knows how to make the best of the shallow, edge fisheries.

The green heron is one of the few fishing species that has adapted tools in its quest. Specifically, this heron is known to use lures or bait to attract small fish within striking distance. The shikepoke may catch some kind of insect and drop it into the water to draw fish within its reach.

Likewise, a green heron may also pick up a piece of a twig or a tiny feather and drop it floating onto the water near its ambush. If not intellectually, at least instinctively the shikepoke knows the floating bit may serve as a lure, something a passing little fish will have to check out to see if it is an insect.

This fishing technique does seem to be something that the green heron has developed to enhance its opportunities while being largely limited to catching food along the banks and shores. It is short legged and can't wade much, but it knows a trick or two.

A half-century ago, the little green heron was quite common, while the much more grandiose great blue heron was almost rare by comparison. The great blue apparently suffered the same kind of reproductive difficulties that befell bald eagles. The numbers of blue heron and eagles both declined, apparently related to the pesticide DDT weakening their egg shells and scuttling nesting success.

After DDT was banned and began to dissipate in the ecosystem, bald eagles began their revival as more successful nestings resumed. The same happened with great blue herons and other shorebirds. Through the later decades of the 20th century and to the present, the bigger herons have gone from modest numbers to what seems like silly abundance.

Meanwhile, little green herons haven't been on the same ride. While they apparently never fell off in population like some of their taller cousins, little greens missed out on the glory days of resurgence. They didn't flourish while the great blues did.

Indeed, national surveys show that little green herons have gone the other direction. They are still regarded as common and are not rated as troubled anywhere in their range that covers much of the continental U.S. But they are much in decline.

Ornithological research suggests that the green heron population steadily declined from 1966 to 2014, the period of one study. Over that stretch, numbers of the shorter, squatty herons are calculated to have gone down by a total of 68 percent.

If you go by that research, you have to figure that there's only about a third as many little green herons as once were.

It's hard to grow concerned for a species you don't even know, especially if there are no official observations of hard times for such a critter. Let me say, however, that those of us who have been hanging out with them since childhood certainly don't want to endure any shikepoke shortage.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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