Way back in the mists of time, namely 1997, we used to keep four ex-wild injured herons, all of them flight-impaired in what was then the old bear enclosure. This was a remnant of the old zoo which was on the site, now occupied by the World Owl Centre.
A large nest platform in the middle, with a nest made of twigs was accessible to the birds. In 1997, an injured female actually paired with a wild male, as wild herons were coming in, attracted by the food we put out for the injured birds.
The female laid two eggs, both of which hatched. She was very defensive of the nest and stood her ground when keepers or volunteers came to feed them. Both the youngsters successfully fledged. One of them decided that it might be more profitable to “set up shop” on the duck pond as we were at that time feeding a one-winged common gull on there named “Gulliver”. Having been born in the semi captivity, this heron wasn’t in the least bit put out by people and became something of a minor celebrity. Herons and young ducklings do not mix though. It was decided that it might be a good idea to lure the heron away, by encouraging it to feed elsewhere. By this time, junior had acquired the name of “Harry”.
Tony Warburton suggested that we feed him on the cannon bank, the site of present day “Heron Happy Hour”. The reason he gave for this being that just below in the woods was the location of Muncaster’s very own heronry and also the oldest in Cumbria.
Over the years this heronry had been in a state of decline and from 20 odd nest s in the 1960’s had declined to only three in 1997. Tony reasoned that with a little help from a supplementary feed, supplied by the World Owl Trust, the heronry would increase in numbers again. Harry was instrumental in achieving this as by example, with his lack of fear of humans, he taught the wild herons to come and get fed on the Cannon Bank in front of an audience on a daily basis. I couldn’t tell you which of the herons is Harry but I fancy that he is probably still the first one down and the number of nests now average between 13-18.
There is now also another dramatic development to the heron feed, in that other wild participants are attending, namely the local Common buzzard family. The female, we believe to be a bird born and bred in our old buzzard aviary which was on the site of the large European Eagle Owl enclosure in the main display.
This female was the last offspring from our then resident ex-wild, injured breeding pair of buzzards, namely Nelson, the male who was so named because he was missing his right eye as in the case of Horatio and a rather “evil,” female called “Mohawk Mo” on account of the fact that she had a fight with a wild buzzard through the roof section of the mesh and because of her disadvantaged position, came off second best on that occasion.
The resulting injury was a permanently bald head, except for a thin strip of feathers on the centre of her forehead and a permanently “surprised look” in one eye due to the fact that one of her brows had been badly damaged. We named this breeding pair’s final offspring “Mischief” as she took to disrupting our Meet the Birds display during Mortimer’s performance when we found that we would have to throw food out for her which she would snatch in front of the audience, another nice piece of wild life theatre.
Mischief was the last of the 14 offspring we released from Nelson and Mohawk Mo, before Mo slipped this mortal coil six years ago. Mischief now mature enough to breed has now taken to dive bombing herons at Heron Happy Hour in an act of aerial piracy, thereby robbing the herons in mid air which creates quite a spectacle at times. Another happy accident. Long may she and her family continue.
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The World Owl Trust is a member of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) and the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA). The Trust relies on a dedicated membership, visitors, donations and legacies.