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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Science of Thanksgiving
See Inside February 2006

Bait and Switch

Some notes on our feathered and finned friends
Steve Mirsky



FRANK VERONSKY

On Thanksgiving Day, I saw a bird get stuffed. The bird was a great blue heron, Ardea herodias, at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Boynton Beach, Fla. Just after noon, the heron fired its beak into floating vegetation in a canal. He came up with a face full of foliage in the midst of which was a honking big catfish. The avian epicure thus grabbed both the salad and the sushi courses in one swell swoop.

The great blue then flew perhaps 75 yards to a sandbar, where he dropped his takeout--and checked on the state of another large fish he had apparently already caught and deposited there. (I found Web references attesting to the fact that great blues occasionally catch two fish at the same time, putting the kibosh on my claim to a bona fide scientific discovery. So, unfortunately for everyone, it's back to basement chemistry experiments.)

Great blue herons work on large prey for quite a while before the final big gulp. They repeatedly impale the fish with their beaks to soften them up, dip them in water to wet them down and orient them so that they'll slide in head-first. Our Ardea alternated his attention between his two fish. Despite the holiday, there weren't any turkeys at the refuge, but a few turkey vultures did arrive to see about getting a piece of the action. The heron tried to guard both his catches but ultimately gave up his first fish to the vultures to concentrate on the fresher catfish. After almost an hour, the bird picked up his traumatically tenderized, properly positioned prize and swallowed it whole. I then went to my dad's house and pigged out, with no egrets.

In another fish tale, Vermonters got a rude surprise just after Thanksgiving. Lake Champlain sea lampreys, which chow down on tasty salmon and trout before humans can, had been "the lead villains on Vermont's 'Most Unwanted' list of invasive species," according to the Burlington Free Press. But genetic analysis revealed that the lamprey is in fact a Vermont native. Well, native enough--they probably got caught in the then new lake some 11,500 years ago.

The development is a particular blow to the psyche of the locals, who vaunt Vermontitude. An oft-told story concerns a Vermont couple who travel to a hospital just over the border in New Hampshire, where the wife gives birth. The next day they return home with their baby son. The boy never leaves the state again, becomes an honored citizen and passes away peacefully in his late 90s. The newspaper headlines his obituary: "New Hampshire Man Dies in Vermont."

Finally, news about the one that got away. Idaho Senator Larry Craig had a bone to pick with what's called the Fish Passage Center in Portland, Ore. According to the Washington Post, the center's fish counts showed that the Columbia-Snake hydroelectric system was killing salmon. And that spilling some of the water over dams rather than through turbines would buoy salmon numbers. A judge then tipped the scales in favor of the fish, but that meant utilities would take it on the chinook.

So Senator Craig--a former National Hydropower Association "legislator of the year"--then added a few words to a piece of $30-billion general legislation that simply ended the center's $1.3-million annual funding. He seized on a 2003 independent assessment of the center, which indeed did have a few criticisms. The Post quoted an author of the review, however, as saying that the center's work was of high technical quality and that Craig's selective quoting from the report gave a misleading impression of the reviewer's generally good opinion.

"False science leads people to false choices," Craig accurately said in defending his efforts. And no science leads to no choices. The senator's press secretary answered a reporter's question by saying that Craig wasn't being vindictive, because "that is not his style." The secretary's name, deliciously, is Whiting, speaking of fish stories.

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