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The art of surgical strike: Courtesy the heron bird

New Delhi, June 14: Imagine standing in shallow waterwithout movingfor long periods of time. Toes spread out, feet firmly planted in squishy mud, eyes focused on finding a tasty fish or frog.

Updated Jun 14, 2021 08:06 AM

The art of surgical strike: Courtesy the heron bird

Suddenly, the head strikes underwater, grabs a passing treat with the beak and swallows it whole. Incredible surgical strike with precision.

I am always entranced watching the hunting behavior of long-legged wading birds like herons and egrets. They stand motionless for long minutes at the edge of a pond or swamp, waiting for prey to swim within striking distance. It's a technique sometimes described as stalking, and it convinces me that those birds have far more patience than I do.

The bird reminds me of Heron UAV drones of Indian defence forces which were used in the surgical attack on terrorist camps inside Pakistani territory. During the surgical strike, the Heron was up in the air monitoring and assessing the target. The Heron drones are equipped with laser guided bombs, long-range air to ground missiles and anti-tank guided missiles for precision surgical attack.

Like the heron birds, these drones stalk their "prey" with stealth. Flying at a height of 30,000 ft, Heron drones provide its operators with real-time information about enemy battlefields by performing surveillance and target acquisition over large areas.

Any fisherman will tell you that to catch a fish, you need the right bait, the perfect spot by the water's edge, and loads of patience. While they don't use the traditional line-and-tackle, herons have mastered these fishing techniques.

The heron, egret and bitterns bird species belong to the same family of Ardeidae - somewhat visually similar to cranes, storks and ibises. However, a closer look soon allows you to recognise them.

Herons are widely distributed over the world but are most common in the tropics. They usually feed while wading quietly in the shallow waters of pools, marshes, and swamps, catching frogs, fishes, and other aquatic animals. They nest in rough platforms of sticks constructed in bushes or trees near water; the nests usually are grouped in colonies called heronries.

There are six types of herons found in Indiathe purple heron, grey heron, black-crowned night Heron, pond heron, western reef heron and striated heron and the white-bellied heron.

Out of these, the white-bellied herons are extremely rare. The IUCN Red List classifies them as "Critically Endangered" and estimates there are between 50 to 249 mature individuals left in the wild.

The smallest of the common herons in India are the pond heron, also known as paddy heron and black-crowned night heron and striated heron. They are common in and around Indian cities, around lakes, ponds, marshes, and wetlands. Unlike their larger, long-necked cousins, these herons usually hold their necks tight up against their bodies, giving them a stocky, hunched appearance.

Instead of getting the feet wet, these herons perch on vegetation or low-hanging branches at the water's edge and when small fish come in the range, they strike rapidly, extending the neck and dagger-like beak. The victim is swallowed whole. They have an excellent camouflage, feeding on fish and amphibians at the edge of ponds and marshy wetlands.

Aptly named, the black-crowned night heron prefers the pre-dawn hours for fishing when fish are most active. This helps them avoid the crowds (other birds fishing).

Grey herons are the largest among the herons found in India. They grow up-to a metre tall and its wings can spread up to 195 cms. These big Herons commonly stand with the neck bent in an S' shape. They fly with the legs trailing loosely and the head held back against the body, instead of stretching the neck out in front as most birds do. They have broad wings, long straight sharp-pointed bills, and powder downs; the latter are areas of feathers that continually disintegrate to a fine powder which is used for preening (absorbing and removing fish oil, scum, and slime from the plumage).

The big herons like purple herons, grey herons eat frogs, insects but their main source of food is fish, and have evolved to become highly efficient at catching them. The herons are tall and have long legs which gives them the ability to catch fish in their favourite manner which typically involves wading slowly in shallow water.

Sometimes herons lure fish by dropping things into the waterinsects, tiny feathers or leaves, even worms. Then it waits perfectly still and suddenly it strikes, deftly snatching a fish with a swift jab of its beak. Herons have only one rule: Be patient, but take focused action when the time is right.

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