Non-FictionSpring 2018

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron – Andrew Furman


The creature does not rush.  It creeps with great care along the tattered russet bark of the slash pine limb, a large stick braced between the mandibles of its stout bill like a tightrope walker’s pole.  The heron’s reptilian toes, yellow and scaled, splay to grip the branch as it makes its way toward its mate.  A formidable collector of twigs and branches.  Broke this large piece from the adjacent live oak with its bill.  Snap!  I didn’t know that birds did this thing, clipped nesting material directly from living trees.  The creature joins its mate at their rickety redoubt just taking shape, performs a little dance, flashes nuptial plumes above its cobra neck.

Yellow-crowned night-heron.  Nyctanassa violacea.  Common.  Or fairly common, depending upon your source.  At twenty-four inches or so, rather stocky for a heron—“chunky,” says Roger Tory Peterson—though longer-necked and legged than its cousin, the black-crowned night-heron.  Its smooth, purple-gray plumage, sharp black-and-white face, and long yellow plumes “lend it a touch of elegance,” the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website suggests.  Breeds from southern New England to Florida and west to the Mississippi River and Texas.  Thrives in coastal marshes, barrier islands, bayous and mangroves.  Hunts all hours of the day, despite its name.  “Foraging birds walk slowly along mudflats,” David Allen Sibley writes, “searching mainly for crabs, or wooded swamps searching for crayfish.”

This isn’t a mudflat or a wooded swamp.  It’s my local park, a modest square patch of grass, oak, and pine (and basketball court, picnic table, swing-set and slides), flanked on all sides by ranch-style houses.  The ten-lane I-95 growls nonstop just a few blocks to the west; a few blocks to the east, the Florida East Coast trains whistle and clack across the rails at regular intervals hauling phosphate.  Yet I’ve observed these wild creatures going about their life business in this same giant slash pine for the past several years I’ve lived in the neighborhood.  Like clockwork, they return each year.


“These birds, they go to the right/ place every day until they die,” Anne Pierson Wiese observes in the opening stanza of her poem, “Profile of the Night Heron.”


Yes.  I’ve watched these birds return to their right place.  Today, however, it’s not only the usual breeding pair I spot in the slash pine.  As I gaze up into the scaffolding of branches, I notice the early efforts of three additional nests, several adults fortifying their twiggy homes, or keeping watch from a nearby perch, batting their big ruby eyes.  A mottled juvenile (progeny, likely, from last year’s breeding season), slouches its shoulders like a surly teenager.  A veritable colony of yellow-crowned night-herons!  Several wading bird species breed socially in rookeries and, in this sense, contrast markedly from other birds I know.

The night-herons’ social proclivities would seem like a good practice for the species—sharing resources, spreading genes about aplenty, not murdering one another and so forth.  Something, however, checks my enthusiasm for this new colony.  This is Florida and after twenty-odd years living here I’ve learned to greet all environmental current events with a healthy dose of skepticism. The increased nesting in my park may only suggest the further degradation of their historic nesting sites in nearby cypress swamps and mangrove creeks.  Exotic snakes and lizards raiding their nests in the wilder outposts; or water levels out of whack on account of untimely Lake Okeechobee releases by the South Florida Water Management District; or saltwater incursions owing to climate change, choking out heron prey.


The naturalist sails aboard the United States Revenue Cutter Marion, skirts the necklace isles of the Florida Keys.  His heart swells with “uncontrollable delight” as the ship safely traverses the coral reef and nears the inlet of Indian Key.  From the deck, he observes winged creatures almost all new to him arrayed in the most brilliant apparel.  The pilot, his host, a great conch-diver, manatee-marauder, fish-spearer, turtle-toppler, and bird-shooter.  He promises the naturalist “rare sport” and ushers him onto his small yawl.  Two sailors accompany them to row inshore toward the labyrinth of mangroves.  The captain orders his men to stop rowing as they near the thicket, orders them to ready their arms as he sculls the boat alone inside the foliage beneath a prodigious rookery of pelicans.  The social proclivities of these birds!  A discharge of artillery, the naturalist will later report, seldom produced more affect.  A multitude of these great birds—the dead, the dying, the wounded—splash down into the water like heavy rain.  The more fortunate creatures scream obscenities as they take to the wing. The sailors reach over the gunwales to collect the game, line the undersides bow to stern with dead pelicans.

This is before most scientists glimpse the possible extirpation of many of the American birds that John James Audubon shoots with heady abandon and paints for his monumental Birds of America project (first published in London between 1827 and 1838), before binoculars and cameras, before Henry David Thoreau proposes a “finer way of ornithology” that omits the gun and includes “so much closer attention to the habits of the birds.”  An oddball proposition from an oddball sort.  That shiftless Henry.  Audubon, seeking an artistic departure from the stilted museum-piece paintings of his contemporaries, requires freshly-shot models.  He uses wire to shape the birds he kills into dramatic poses and publishes five volumes of his Ornithological Biography between 1831 and 1839 to complement his paintings.  His account of the yellow-crowned heron (as the birds were then called) appears in volume four and bespeaks his intimate hunter’s relations with the species.  “When wounded,” Audubon writes, “the Yellow-crowned Heron defends itself vigorously with its claws, the scratches inflicted by which are severe, and also strikes with the bill.  If not brought to the ground, in a place where the trees are close and thickly branched, it is difficult to obtain them without a second shot, for they scamper quickly from one twig to another, and are very soon out of reach.”


The Gilded Age.  A banker performs a most unusual big-city bird count in Manhattan on two blustery February days.  A poor time of year to identify a variety of birds in the temperate zone.  Yet Frank M. Chapman, a member of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) and officer of the nascent Audubon Society, knows exactly what he’s doing.  He identifies 160 different birds atop the heads of New York’s most fashionable ladies.  Feathered hats all the rage.  542 of the 700 hats Chapman spies and documents boast feathers gleaned from shot birds.  The most costly of these hats contain aigrettes, the long curved plumes of herons and egrets.

Here’s the thing of it.  Herons, egrets, spoonbills and ibises typically don’t leave their helpless young in a crisis.  A rifle’s report or a raccoon’s wily approach.  Same difference to them.  These social breeders stick it out till the end.  And so it’s quite easy for plume hunters in rickety skiffs and canoes to “shoot out” an entire colony within hours, scalp hundreds of dead birds, preserve the feathers in arsenic until they can deliver them to buyers. By 1886, according to the AOU, five million birds per year are being killed for the millinery trade alone.  All the large rookeries are soon shot out from New England to central Florida.

A principal challenge remains:  locating the remaining colonies in the nearly impenetrable, mosquito-ridden mangrove islands in the Everglades.


Several neighbors have ventured from climate-controlled interiors to enjoy the park with me.  They chase after their children or study their smart phones, or do both, oblivious to this colony of night-herons.  I don’t call anyone over to see.  Such ostentatious displays of animal hereness don’t often go well for the animals.  Even today. We like to glimpse wild creatures in the places we inhabit on their lonesome, or paired, fighting the good fight on the margins.  A red-tailed hawk nest on a building across the street from New York’s Central Park;  a weasel caught unawares after slinking from beneath the cover of a wild rose shrub in the Virginia suburbs;  a deer stranded, spindly legs splayed, on pond ice (Save it!  Save it!).  Wild animals among us in greater numbers, however, make us nervous, threaten our claim.  Don’t Feed the Wildlife! a sign warns at my park, decorated for clarity with a reproduction of a rapscallion raccoon and sneaky squirrel.  We live in the Anthropocene, the Age of the Humans. We’ve thrown too much carbon up into the atmosphere, cleared the forests, overhunted the game, polluted and overfished the oceans, precipitated mass extinctions.

It’s all about us now.

The night-heron pair I’m used to seeing each year seems to know the score.  Bashful birds, they’ve kept to the trees during the briskest park hours.  Only after dusk, years past, have I spotted one prancing across the grass and basketball court, bobbing its head after palmetto bugs and lizards (benighted prey for these crayfish and crab-eaters).  So the herons have mostly gone unnoticed.  How often do people look up?  Yet I worry about what my neighbors might think about this colony making too conspicuous a display.  Is it safe?  Those sharp claws and thick bills that Audubon so feared!  These are beefy birds.  Tall as toddlers.  They issue raspy, unmelodious barks when riled.  They release prodigious ribbons of milky excrement from the tree-tops.  What happens when the first child, or her parent, gets splattered by a night-heron dropping in the park?

Careful, I silently caution these social birds.


HATS FOR EVERY OCCASION, a vintage millinery advertisement reads.  ONE PRICE ONLY 30/C.  A LARGE STOCK OF NEWEST MODELS ALWAYS ON VIEW.  Beneath a pencil sketch of a woman wearing a feathered hat twice the size of her head, the caption:  OF BROWN CRINOLINE STRAW WITH SHADED BIRDS AND ROSETTES OF TULLE UNDER THE BRIM AT THE BACK


He is young and hungry and anxious to make his mark.  The son of an aristocratic southern family from Charleston, South Carolina, their fortune lost during the Civil War.  And so he wonders about these birds flitting over his family’s Marco Island home on Florida’s gulf coast.  These egrets and herons and spoonbills and ibises.  No large rookeries remain in the state’s readily accessible wetlands.  But the Indians tell stories of a great colony hidden within the uncharted Everglades to the east.  He sets out in his sloop for Fort Myers, purchases supplies and acquires a first mate.  They sail southeast in the Gulf of Mexico, the Ten Thousand Islands like eyebrows on the near horizon.  They slip inside at Ponce de Leon Bay, thread their way east through mangrove channels, anchor near Tarpon Creek.  From there, George Elliot Cuthbert goes it alone on a small canoe, alternately paddles, poles, and tugs the vessel through impossible mangrove thickets between blessed stretches of open water.  Days pass.  He snatches a few hours of sleep at a time within cradles of mangrove legs beneath the outrageous gauze of the Milky Way.  Too, the deafening whine of mosquitoes.  Too, the oleaginous aroma of the bear fat he rubs across his skin to ward off the pests.  Too, the growls and barks of alligators and crocodiles.  Too, the silent water moccasins.  Too, thirst.  His fresh water supply runs low.

He passes several likely mangrove islands, but no colony.  Teeming flocks spiral overhead, flash against the sun, offer hope.  A white feather floats by in the tea-stained tributary the moment before he claws his way through the last thicket, reaches a wide open lake and glimpses the mangrove island across the water, the foliage festooned with birds.  “A flower, a beautiful white blossom,” he reports to his children.  Imagine the stench.  The mangrove sulfur yields to the even more putrid effluvia of bird excrement, sun-baked feathers, and regurgitated brackish organisms.  But it must smell like money to Cuthbert.   Aigrettes at $32 an ounce, double the price of gold.  He needs only two trips to the rookery with his French rifle to amass a fortune.  He purchases half of Marco Island, buys a schooner, farms his land, basks in his glory.  His neighbors refer to him as Captain Cuthbert till the end of his days.

And more.  Look for it on the map.  You’ll find it northeast of Flamingo. Cuthbert Lake.


Some of my bird-watching friends blame Audubon for shooting up so many birds (which I can understand) and criticize his paintings as contrived, hardly lifelike at all (which I can also understand).  His painting of the “yellow-crowned heron,” however, seems to balance verisimilitude with vitality.  A thoughtful student recently gave me a small book containing reproductions of Audubon’s Birds of America paintings, which I keep in my office.  I flip through the pages before teaching today and inspect Plate 336.  A male in breeding plumage stands on a dead branch, mandibles agape, neck turned about to gaze up at a dusky juvenile, perched contentedly on one leg on a branch just above.  Yes, these are the birds that I watch and know at Pine Breeze Park.


He is a sickly child.  So it might not be a good idea for Guy Bradley’s father to move the family from Chicago to the mosquito-infested backwater that is south Florida.  The elder Bradley takes a job as keeper of the House of Refuge for wayward sailors in Fort Lauderdale.  The pay is meager.  To keep from starving, the family cultivates sweet potatoes (poorly) and catches fish (more ably).  The cistern leaks.  They drink water from a nearby well instead.  Guy and his siblings grow increasingly ill.  A sister, Flora, dies.  It may be the water.  Mr. Bradley resigns and moves the family a few miles north to Lake Worth.  He becomes one of Florida’s legendary barefoot mailmen, walks the beach with his mail sack between Palm Beach and Miami to avoid the panthers, alligators, and Indians, inland.  Guy and his remaining siblings slowly regain their health.  The lad develops a fondness for the Florida outdoors.  At fifteen, Guy and his older brother accompany a French plume hunter on his twenty-eight foot sloop on an expedition inside the Hillsboro Inlet.  They cruise up Cypress Creek—a busy interchange now on I-95—encounter ancient cypress trees draped with Spanish moss and plume birds.  Guy and his brother shoot several of the valuable specimens, plus a turkey for dinner.


Sarah Orne Jewett publishes a story, “A White Heron,” the same year as Chapman’s unusual big-city bird count.  Sylvia, a young girl in rural New England, is tempted by a male hunter to reveal the whereabouts of a pair of little white herons (i.e., snowy egrets).  “I mean to get them on my own ground if they can be found,” he asserts.  There’s a lot of money in it for them if she will only tell the hunter where he might find the nest. Sylvia and her grandmother are poor.  Jewett’s heroine locates the nest (in a pine tree, incidentally), yet she triumphs through not betraying the birds’ secret.  “The murmur of the pine’s green branches is in her ears,” Jewett writes, “she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they  watched the sea and the morning together, and Sylvia cannot speak;  she cannot tell the heron’s secret and give its life away.”


A new century dawns, and Americans begin to wonder whether it might be best not to seek a feather in our caps.  Boston socialite, Harriet Hemenway, is aghast to learn of the horrors of the plume trade.  Enlisting the help of her cousin, Minna Hall, they distribute pamphlets and hold tea parties to persuade their high-society peers to boycott the trade.  They form the Massachusetts Audubon Society, lobby for anti-plume hunting legislation, their efforts culminating in the passage of the Lacey Act, which outlaws the trade of wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold.  On Christmas Day, Chapman initiates the “Christmas Bird Census” of living wild birds, a very different bird count from his earlier, sobering survey of ladies’ hats.  The Florida Legislature passes Chapter 4357 the following year, “An Act for the Protection of Birds and their Nests and Eggs, and Prescribing a Penalty for any Violation Thereof.”


Paul Kroegel, sans legal authority, fends off the plume hunters from the deck of his sailboat with his 10-gauge shotgun.  The unofficial protector of this lovely little undeveloped island in the Indian River Lagoon along Florida’s east coast near Sebastian.  Members of the AOU visit the island while lobbying for the passage of Chapter 4357 and learn about the plight of the pelicans from Kroegel.  He convinces Chapman and his colleagues to inveigh upon President Theodore Roosevelt to protect the island.  Roosevelt has an even bigger idea.  He establishes Pelican Island as the nation’s first National Wildlife Refuge.  Kroegel is named warden.


Even so.  Cuthbert’s Rookery is shot out.  By which I mean snowy egret and great blue heron and little blue heron and roseate spoonbill and white ibis and glossy ibis and limpkin and pelican and tri-colored heron and great egret and, of course, yellow-crowned night-heron.  Gone.  Shot from their low nests just overhead.  Crowns scalped.  Aigrettes preserved in arsenic. The worthless nestlings bleating above, left to the ants and the raccoons and the vultures.  Crocodiles and alligators consume what the birds and mammals leave behind.  This, despite the Lacey Act, despite Chapter 4357, despite Roosevelt and Chapman and Kroegel and Hemenway and Jewett, and despite the vigilance of the Monroe County game warden and deputy sheriff.  His name is Guy Bradley.

“You could of walked right around the rookery on them birds’ bodies, between four and five hundred of them,” he reports, having arrived too late at the scene.


“I see you looking at those birds,” a lady at the park, roughly my age, accosts me.  She calls from the road that squares this small patch.  I’ve noticed her before.  This is her exercise, walking square after square around the tiny park.

“Yeah,” I admit, sheepishly raising a palm.  “I guess I am.”  I’m not sure how to take her comment, what she thinks of my looking, what she thinks of “those birds.”  It’s been impressed upon me by my neighbors in ways subtle and not-so-subtle that I’m something of an oddball, what with my unkempt yard of native shrubs and untrimmed oaks rather than stiff St. Augustine grass, my multiple bird feeders and nest boxes and whatnot.  I wait for her next words.

“They nest in my slash pines every year.”  She lifts her chin toward what I gather is her house on the corner, the stucco stained with rust from the sprinklers.  It’s a boast, birds in her pines.  She likes the herons.  Phew.  I amble over to the road so we won’t have to shout to continue the conversation.  Her name is Evelyn.  She’s lived here far longer than me, nearly twenty-five years.  The birds come back to her slash pine to nest year after year, keep building up the same nests with twigs.  A marvel they never come down in a storm, precarious as they seem.  She and her husband start looking for the birds in February.  The creatures don’t finish up and disperse until June.  Some mornings they wake her up with their carrying on.

Squawk-squawk-squawk,” she mimics their call, shrugging her shoulders under the effort.

“I can only imagine,” I say. “Yellow-crowned night-herons sure are loud.”

“Yellow-crowned night-herons,” she tastes the words on her tongue.  “That’s what they’re called?”


As a young man, Guy works various jobs in Lake Worth.  He is a farmer, a boatman, a mailman, and the occasional hunter of plumes.  The Bradleys move to the frontier outpost of Flamingo deep in the Everglades, the southernmost settlement on the Florida mainland, not least of all to purchase land while it’s still cheap.  Word has it that Henry Flagler plans to extend his rail line to Key West from Flamingo’s Cape Sable area.  The family does pretty well, biding their time.  At twenty-seven, Guy owns a quarter-mile of waterfront land, farms vegetables and sugarcane and fruit trees, owns his own ship, a forty-foot sharpie, The Pearl, runs cargo to the Keys, surveys land for the Flagler Model Land company, marries Sophonia Vickers Kirvin, fathers two boys.

Shortly after the passage of Chapter 4357, Guy is named Monroe County game warden and deputy sheriff.  Law enforcement runs in the Bradley family. The regular salary appeals to him, and Guy seems to have changed his views about the ethics of his onetime bloody pursuit.  “I will certainly do all I can to find out who are the N.Y. buyers,” he writes an official of the AOU.  “I believe Stern Bros. are still in the business.  They used to buy heavily some years ago when I used to hunt plume birds, but since the Game laws were passed I have not killed a plume bird for it is a cruel and hard calling notwithstanding being unlawful.”

Upon the advice of his engineers, Flagler decides against the more direct Cape Sable railroad route to Key West.  He’ll lay track south westerly from Miami along the necklace of Keys islands instead.  So it’s a good thing that Guy has a steady paycheck.  A skilled boatman, he apprehends several plume hunters. In 1905, he makes three arrests involving the family of Flamingo neighbor and rival, Captain Walter Smith, including Smith’s seventeen year-old son.  “You ever arrest one of my sons again, I’ll kill you,” Smith threatens Guy.  Later that year, the captain makes good on his threat.  Guy sees Smith’s boys shooting into a rookery on Oyster Keys, sees them make their way back to their father’s larger sloop.  When he demands to board the vessel to arrest them, Smith shoots and kills Guy with his rifle and turns himself into the authorities in Key West.  A grand jury sees it as self-defense and the captain goes free.


Formerly a pine flatwoods—replete with slash pine towering above the fans of saw palmetto thickets—few slash pines remain in my neighborhood today.  First they were chopped down in the early twentieth century to make room for a pineapple farm.  Then the pineapples were gradually cleared, along with most of the remaining pines and palmettos, to make room for my subdivision.  Hurricanes take a fair share as well, including the recent Hurricanes Frances, Jeanne, and Wilma.  A few trees remain at the park and accent the landscape surrounding our homes, but most neighbors don’t seem to like these native trees.  They’re “messy,” I hear people complain.  They drop prodigious drifts of russet needles, which carpet driveways, clog up roof gutters, choke the grass.  Park your car under them during the wrong time of year and it’ll get coated by a layer of sticky sap. So neighbors often have their pines removed.  But not Evelyn, who likes the herons.

Palm Beach Farms, the name of our subdivision, harkening back to its pineapple, rather than pine, days.


The birds return.  Only a few. But they return.  Because it’s a perfect spot for a colony, Cuthbert Rookery, the two-acre island protected from the raccoons (if not from humans, anymore) by the crocodile and alligator-infested moat.  So the birds return. Only a few at first.  Then more.  If nothing like before.

He needs to see this famous island.  After numerous failed attempts—a shootout one year, a storm the next—Chapman finally reaches Cuthbert Lake.  He hides until sundown beneath an umbrella draped in green denim, observes thousands of birds, more than he dared to hope.  They descend from the skies in complicated vortices and settle in for the night on their nests.  He approaches at nightfall, takes only a single nest and its eggs for the Cuthbert Rookery Diorama he hopes to stage among his other dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  He leaves the living birds alone.


For spring break, I fly with my family on metal wings to New York City.  We see the Statue of Liberty and the Freedom Tower from the deck of a boat, walk the High Line, visit the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, of course, the American Museum of Natural History.  The main draws for our sixteen- and seven-year-old daughters are The Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life (that gargantuan model of a blue whale suspended from the ceiling) and the space show in the Hayden Planetarium, narrated by Neil DeGrasse Tyson.  But first things first.  I make a beeline to Chapman’s diorama of Cuthbert’s Rookery in the Sanford Hall of North American Birds, drag my wife and the girls behind.  It’s pretty impressive.  A wide variety of herons, ibises, egrets, and spoonbills in various lifelike poses across the scaffolding of mangrove branches, chicks poking their fluffy heads from Chapman’s nest close to the glass.  I’m drawn mostly to the small details he captured, the few yellow and yellowing mangrove leaves, the white flecks of guano on some of the mangrove legs below.

I can’t say that my wife or daughters are blown away by the exhibit, and I can’t say that I’m surprised.  It’s been over one hundred years since the museum first staged this and many of its other dioramas.  Given the heady visual enticements of the virtual realm at our fingertips, there’s something quaint about all these stuffed animals, the simulated water, the synthetic tree branches and leaves, the earnest realism of the painted backdrop.  But I like to think that there’s another reason for the tepid reaction.  We aren’t Chapman’s intended audience of northeastern urbanites.  We live in the subtropics among these creatures that still exist, thanks in no small part to his efforts.  This static replica pales in comparison to their vital presence.  Several mornings we wake to the scene of a white ibis flock in our front yard drilling their scarlet red bills into the sandy earth for grubs. Solitary great egrets prowl the neighborhood searching for lizards within the shrubbery.  Tri-colored and little blue herons squawk overhead to and from their foraging and nesting grounds.

Plus, yellow-crowned night-herons nest every year at Pine Breeze Park.


You can still go to Cuthbert Lake.  Sort of.  Outboard motors are restricted in the area, which is closed to the general public.  But if you’re lucky you might be able to find a government employee with a permit and a poling vessel who’s willing to make the trek.  Laura Allen secures the services of biologist Paul Frezza and documents the journey in a brief essay for the National Parks Conservation Association.  Since Cuthbert’s time, mangrove roots have been chopped back to clear a passage along the creek branches.  They pass an old “Do Not Enter” sign and reach the lake. The island, on account of various hurricanes over the years, is only a fraction of the two-acres that Cuthbert glimpsed.  Allen counts several birds roosting there, about fifty wood storks among them, but it’s nothing like the rookery it once was.  Park biologist Lori Oberhofer tells her that a record from 1937 notes over 1000 birds on Cuthbert Rookery.  She’s counted roughly 200 nests each season for the past decade, making it around the 10th most prolific rookery in the park today.


Again, Wiese’s “Profile of the Night Heron”—these birds who “go to the right/ place every day until they die.”  In the two stanzas that follow the first, the poet makes an imaginative leap from herons to humans.  “There are people like that in the city,” the second stanza begins. She goes on to evoke the fierce attachment that our most disenfranchised citizens forge with certain city places:  storefronts, stoops, corners, benches.  “Even when surfaces change,” the third stanza begins,

. . . when the Mom & Pop
store becomes a coffee bar, when the park
benches are replaced with dainty chairs and a pebble
border, they stay, noticing what will never change:
the heartprick of longitude and latitude
to home in on. . . .

Oh, I realize, a metaphor, these herons.  It’s an apt comparison between herons and humans, and a beautifully wrought poem on its own terms.  But something in me resists the metaphor; or the anthropocentric impulse that necessitates metaphor to begin with.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve certainly looked toward the animals to glean insight on my sad old self.  Yet the mood I’m in, I want these herons to be enough.  These birds of Cuthbert Rookery, and the birds of all the other right places, places to which they too return—coastal marshes, barrier islands, bayous and mangroves—only to discover erasure, either by hurricanes or human meddling. How long do night-herons languish amid the ruins?


I have no immediate plans to make my way to Cuthbert Lake and its diminished rookery.  Yet I’ve become a devoted watcher of the more modest yellow-crowned night-heron colony at Pine Breeze Park—this right enough place, anyway.  “You sure do like the birds,” Evelyn greets me from the road without breaking stride each time she sees me craning my neck, staring up into the pine, by which she means hello.  “Yep, they’re pretty neat,” I say hello back.  The birds are quite something to look at, once you commit yourself to staying put for a time.

They don’t seem to do a great many things, but what yellow-crowned night-herons do they do with mesmerizing deliberation and care.  They snap twigs and branches from live oak trees.  They walk gingerly across the russet bark and present the twig or branch to their mate, who accepts it, weaves it into the nest.  They stand side-by-side to face the evening sun.  They preen one another with languorous swipes of their chunky bills, flash their nuptial plumes.  They seem so dippy in love that I’m sometimes compelled to avert my eyes.  At dusk, they take to the wing in threes and fours, squawk over the basketball court as they make their way east toward foraging grounds, which I suspect might be along a rare stretch of mangrove shoreline nearby in the canal beside Flagler’s railroad tracks. These night-herons seem to have a good handle on their life business.  They know exactly what they’re about.  With luck, their eggs—protein and calcium-carbonate stuff of wildest night-heron dreams—will soon hatch.


Note:  The author consulted several sources to learn about the plume trade and its principal actors, but wishes to express his special indebtedness to Stuart B. McIver’s Death in the Everglades:  The Murder of Guy Bradley, America’s First Martyr to Environmentalism (2003).



Author Bio: Andrew Furman is a professor of English at Florida Atlantic University and teaches in its MFA program in creative writing. His essays and stories have appeared in such publications as Oxford  AmericanThe Southern ReviewEcotonePoets & WritersThe Chronicle of Higher EducationAgni, and The Florida Review. He is the author, most recently, of the memoir Bitten: My Unexpected Love Affair with Florida (University Press of Florida, 2014), which was named a finalist for the ASLE Environmental Book Award, and  the newly released novel, Goldens Are Here (Green Writers Press, 2018).

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