Dow's Bird Photos

February 3, 2018

Yesterday I learned that "Keelie," the Rough-legged Hawk that entertained us for a couple months in late 2016, may have returned to the same location in the Keeler subdivision just east of Sequim. After failing to locate him this morning, I continued on to John Wayne Marina where I found a Great Blue Heron perched in a Madrona tree close to where I parked. It had its head tucked in at first, taking a snooze, but suddenly perked up and looked interested in something, and I snapped some pics. I turned around and saw a Bald Eagle swoop down to the beach and grab a fish head that a crow had been working on earlier. When I turned back to the heron it started preening, and scratching at its head, which always makes for interesting pictures. Then I noticed something odd about its head and really had to look closely to realize I'd seen something like this before.


Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron, John Wayne Marina, 2/3/2018


If you click the above image you will see a greatly enlarged head, and see a boomerang-shaped pink object protruding through the soft tissue below the lower mandible. In 2010 I photographed a Great Blue Heron with a similar injury, did some research, and learned a bit about the hyoid apparatus, hyoid bone, and tongue of Great Blue Herons. You can read about that experience in the Bird of the Day sidebar on the right. In that case, I finally decided the heron's tongue was protrucing through the throat below the mandibles. But I found a couple of links to images of a heron with a nearly identical protrusion to the one above. This link has the best images: http://www.birdphotographers.net/forums/showthread.php?t=55517

The next image shows the heron scratching at the injury. Having seen this condition twice here, and several reports from other areas around the country, I wonder how these injuries occur. Could it be the result of trying to swallow a fish that is too large, or is still alive and thrashing around in the throat, tearing the soft tissue? Or did a predator, eagle or owl, grab the heron by the throat and rip it open? It looks like it should be painful, but the heron reported from Florida in the above link survived at least two years there.


Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron, John Wayne Marina, 2/3/2018


Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron, John Wayne Marina, 2/3/2018


Additional research today came up with two very interesting articles on the avian tongue, both published in 2014, and both with extensive discussion of the hyoid apparatus in birds. First, from the Golden Gate Audubon Society: https://goldengateaudubon.org/wp-content/uploads/Avian-Tongues_Johnston.pdf .

The second is from Laura Erickson's blog: http://blog.lauraerickson.com/2014/12/more-about-bird-tongues-than-normal.html


Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron, John Wayne Marina, 2/3/2018


Bird of the Day


Great Blue Heron

Hyoid Apparatus Injuries

January 2, 2010

Late this afternoon we walked the beach east of 3 Crabs Restaurant. It was mostly cloudy with a rapidly setting sun, so I wasn't optimistic about taking pictures. I'm a sucker for Great Blue Herons, though, so frequently point my camera at them even in the worst of conditions.

I saw this GBH fly in and land on a log near one of the ponds between the beach and the houses, and quickly snapped a few pictures. Given the low light conditions, I wasn't surprised that the pictures were fuzzy. I was surprised, though, to see what at first appeared to be an arrow protruding from the soft tissue below the lower mandible. I thought somebody had shot the bird.


Great Blue Heron

Injured Great Blue Heron, Dungeness, WA, 1/2/2010


I cropped a couple of the photos to enlarge the shaft, and sent them to all the usual suspects to get their opinions about what this spiky protrusion might be. All were as perplexed as I was, and several possibilities were suggested.

Great Blue Heron Great Blue Heron

Chris P. did some web research and sent me the links below to some photos of Great Blue Herons with somewhat similar protuberances. Nobody has yet offered an authoritative explanation. The list of possibilities so far includes:

  • An arrow or dart
  • A spine from a large fish
  • The heron's tongue
  • Part of the heron's hyoid bone or hyoid apparatus

Although I initially favored either of the first two suggestions, after reviewing the links below, and reading online and in the OPAS reference library (thanks Bob) what I could find about GBH tongues and hyoid apparatus, I'm leaning towards the tongue. Audubon describes the tongue as 3 1/2 inches long, and the bill as 5 1/2 inches long, which is consistent with the relative lengths in my photo. The second link below shows a heron with its mouth open and the tongue sticking out. It looks a lot like the object protruding from the heron I photographed.

I also shared the photos with our local avian veterinarian, Dr. T., and asked if she thought it could be part of the hyoid apparatus. She replied that it could be the ceratobranchial bone from the hyoid apparatus. There are two of them, running the length of the bill on each side. But she also suggested it could be the tongue. She once treated a duck that had a deep laceration under the mandible, from which the tongue protruded. Without examining the bird, though, she couldn't be sure.

I've imagined a couple of scenarios that might account for an injury like this. Perhaps a botched attack by an eagle that ripped the lower mandible allowing the tongue to drop down. Or maybe the heron tried to swallow too large a fish, or one with sharp spines, that ripped the mouth from the inside.

I've looked for this heron several times since that day and once thought I saw it fly over 3 Crabs Road and land behind Helen's Pond, but haven't seen it since.

Below is a link to BirdPhotographers.Net showing a couple images of a Great Blue Heron with a very similar condition. The second link is to a cool image of a Great Blue Heron with its mouth open and its tongue extended. You can see the hyoid apparatus clearly.

http://www.birdphotographers.net/forums/showthread.php?t=55517

https://www.flickr.com/photos/gpabill/4351101815/

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