Great Blue Heron and the Prey Problem

The behavior of this Great Blue Heron captured my attention. I watched as the bird poked and prodded in the mud below the grass. It wasn’t until I grabbed my camera and locked on with a 600mm lens that I could see the prey. . . what appeared to be a Rough-skinned Newt.

What happened as I photographed this feeding session roused my curiosity.

The picture story that follows is a result of analyzing the time stamps on my photos and noting what feeding behavior the Great Blue Heron was doing. Was the prey in its beak, or was the prey getting dropped?

A pattern emerged. I wondered why the heron reacted to its prey capture in this manner.

Take a look and see what you think.

Feeding timer: Minute 1

Heron alternates between clamping prey in beak and dropping it.


Feeding timer: Minute 2

Heron continues to alternate between clamping prey in beak and dropping it.


Feeding timer: Minute 3

Final moments. . . Heron still alternates between clamping prey in beak and dropping it.


Feeding timer: End

After minutes of vacillation between hanging on to its prey and letting go, the Heron concedes and drops the Rough-skinned Newt. Then, the Great Blue Heron flew away.


What happened?

A little bit of research gives a clue why this Great Blue Heron seemed to be at odds about what to do with its catch. Rough-skinned newts have deadly neurotoxins in their skin that kill any animal that dares to ingest them… except for one, toxin-resistant garter snakes.

After minutes of repeatedly pickling up and dropping the newt, the final choice to drop it, uneaten, was wise. Scientific studies have shown ingestion would result with this bird’s death.

Note of Caution– Remember: Neurotoxins in the skin of Rough-skinned Newts is highly toxic to ALL animals (except to toxin-resistant species of garter snakes). If handled, be sure to wash hands carefully before placing hands in or near the mouth,