There is a lot of controversy about whether the great white heron is a subspecies or color morph of the great blue heron, but that was beside the point the day I was called to rescue a great white heron who had swallowed a baited herring in a canal. White herons are not the same as the great white egret we see all over the US in the summer. White herons are much larger, have lighter-colored legs (great white egret legs are black), and number fewer than 2000 individuals. They live in the Florida Keys and on a few Caribbean islands.
Herons and egrets have bills like ice picks so I always wore my dive mask when I worked with them. A fisherman had left his bait in the canal and gone off for whatever and the bird had swallowed the fish. She (that was a guess) was hooked. I took a dog crate with me and literally reeled in this huge bird (as much as five feet tall with a wingspan of six feet) like a giant flying fish.
This was not a job for the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center. This required anesthesia and surgery because the hook was lodged in her throat. Besides, it was nesting season and if this was a female she could have a nest of babies to feed.
The director, Laura Quinn, and I drove north to Miami to a veterinarian who would do the surgery without cost to the center. We left the bird at the vet’s office and were told to come back in a couple of hours. So we went to a local shopping mall to kill some time.
Before I go further with this story, I must describe Laura Quinn to you. She was an exceptional woman whose whole life revolved around the birds. A retired school teacher, almost every cent she had went to the birds. She bought her clothes at the local Salvation Army thrift store. Her door was always open and all kinds of birds walked or flew in and perched on a couch or kitchen counter. She wore flip flops all the time and I don’t believe I ever saw her take the time to comb her hair. For the three years that I knew her, her glasses were taped together with adhesive tape. Often bits of blood and fish guts were dried on her shirt.
So there we were, walking through the mall. A young woman, probably a high schooler in her part-time job, stopped us in the mall to offer us manicure coupons. Laura was still incensed that the stupid fisherman had left his bait unattended in the canal and she wasn’t in the best of moods. She reached out and grabbed this poor girl by the front of her blouse and yelled, “THE WORLD IS GOING TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET AND YOU’RE WORRIED ABOUT FINGERNAILS?”
I doubt I’ll ever forget the frozen smile on that girl’s face. She still had it there as Laura dropped her hands and we walked away.
We picked up the bird and delivered her to the same area where she’d been rescued, just in case she had a nest. The vet believed she would recover quickly.
I was writing a weekly column about the Center in the local newspaper, the “Florida Keys Reporter” at the time, so that week I wrote the part of the story about not leaving unattended baits in the water. This is the first time I’ve written “the rest of the story.”
Incidentally, after I left the Keys the Center grew and moved to a property on the bayside where they built real cages and boardwalks with the help of volunteers, fund raisers, and financial gifts. Laura’s gone now, but the Center moved again and is a full-blown wildlife center with 501(c)3 non-profit standing, a web page (FKWBC.org), and a Facebook page, all dedicated to “Keep them flying.”