Stories We Love: Offering a Helping Hand

Editor’s Note: We reposted this here with Dottie Hodges’ permission. Many of us see herons all the time and have special connections to them. Good on, ya Dottie and friends. Photos by Adam Boothby


Saving a Heron

Anyone who knows me knows my habit of talking to birds. Talking to them, and/or crafting their replies back to me. Particularly while paddling, I talk a lot to Great Blue Herons because they are frequent companions on the creeks, rivers, and lakes in Tennessee. For areas we paddle often, it’s a point of pride that over the years as we glide closer and closer by, some of them stand their ground and don’t spook away. I’d like to think they’ve gotten to know us a little.

Yesterday’s paddle on South Chickamauga Creek was a classic early winter day – leaves are all gone now, leaving exposed the hiding gems of the creek from bright red berries to mistletoe. Clear and low water exposed parts of the creek that we don’t get to see that often. As part of those low water levels, the muddy banks and snags are also exposed, including left-behind remnants of trot lines and fishing lines. As we scanned the banks for mistletoe, Adam came upon one of our Blue Heron friends, standing oddly and tugging at a wing – snagged on and broken by just such line on a branch at the exposed mud bank. We approached, soothed the bird with sweet talking, and called wildlife rescue. We waited for a call back and debated what to do. Herons are large, formidable birds with sharp beaks, claws, and a lightning fast strike. We were also concerned about putting the bird into additional stress. The mud banks showed claw marks near by – signs of other wildlife having harassed the bird. We reluctantly decided to temporarily leave our friend, hustling back to the put-in agreeing to meet the wildlife rescuers from Happinest Wildlife Rehabilitation and Rescue by land and paddle them back the 40 yards or so back to the bird from a residential launch.

Getting a Hand from Hunters

As we met up with the rescuers, I spied a pair of hunters going down the creek in a flatbottom boat. I ran down the launch and got their attention and explained the situation – they agreed to ferry the lead rescuer upriver, and we followed on our boards. He quickly covered the bird’s head, released the line (with the handy samurai sword the hunters had on board – not making this up), and brought our Friend back to the boat ramp. I spoke to the bird, saying how we’d kept our promise of getting help and coming back to rescue, and was gazed upon with a very kind – but very tired – eye. Upon quick examination of the wing, they said the bird would likely not make it or have to be euthanized, as the musculature had worn away from so much of the wing in addition to the major break. We said if rehabilitation was an option, and the bird was able to fly hop high enough to escape predators, the bird could come live at our pond on the mountain and have access to bream and tree cover for roosting. The rehabbers quickly departed to get the bird re-hydrated and to safety, and said they’d keep us posted of the progress. We began loading our boards back on the car, feeling like we’d helped in some way.

In a few minutes, they walked over to tell us that the bird had died. How could this happen, at the moment of such hope? I consoled myself with the thought that at least the bird didn’t suffer a long exposure death, or more harassment by wildlife, or even worse, there alone on the creek bank. But still. It shook me and has still shaken me. I am still hopeful that the bird felt love and kindness even in those last moments.


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