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How The Hen House Turns: What Do Heron’s Taste?

on June 14, 2017 - 7:18am
Courtesy photo
Formerly of Los Alamos
Last week, during our morning walk, we saw something that kept us fascinated for 20 minutes.
Instead of circling the campus, we had turned down toward the Windy Hill Open Space Reserve parking lot. There, near the fence bordering a huge meadow of
wild grass, we saw a heron.
He (or she) stood at least 4 feet tall, its long beak clamped tightly on a ball of brown fur. A quick dip of the bird’s head, and the gopher slipped down into his neck. What we were seeing was real, not a Nature program on TV.
The gopher ball was visible as it moved slowly down the heron’s long neck. When the neck stood tall and thin again, the heron took a step, then another, then his head and neck moved forward and low. His body froze into an unmistakable hunting posture. One swift strike at the ground and a very tiny small fur ball disappeared down the heron’s neck with a quick toss.
I will never forget that drama. Its video is painted indelibly in my memory and leaves me questioning our needs and our choices as living beings. We all have to eat, and in order to supply us food, some other form of life is lost.
On a lighter note, however, I felt rather sad for the heron. That dinner could not have tasted good. It passed by the bird’s tongue so fast, it probably didn’t taste at all. Maybe herons enjoy the sensation of prey making its way down their necks. I hope they get some kind of enjoyment when eating.
Or are we humans unique in that regard? No. I’m sure dogs enjoy their food, and cats are very finicky, so they must enjoy some sense of taste. You’d think herons would stick to fish. For them, San Francisco Bay is a quick fly to the east. Our neighbors say that they see herons all the time, standing around the open fields, waiting like statues for some poor gopher to stick his head out of the ground.
I have wondered how birds taste. They do have tongues. Lucy, our Hen House goose, was not the only one to have very definite food preferences, but I never understood why she loved cracked corn. It was dry and tasteless to me. The chickens also preferred it to lay mash.
Lucy also loved honeydew melon rinds—if they were not too ripe. She would reluctantly nibble cantaloupe rinds, but she wouldn’t touch red ripe tomatoes. A shake of her bill and a refusal to bite told me in no uncertain terms when she didn’t like something.
Dogs can also be a puzzle. Poncho, our “Santa Fe shepherd,” routinely cleaned up our scraps after dinner, peas first. Beef scraps sometimes went untouched, at least until he devoured every pea on the plate.
I attempted to clarify the puzzle of animal taste by googling it. Here’s what I found--Chemical sensing with taste buds is very old, as it allows an animal to detect toxins and find needed food. Bitter says toxin. Salt detects needed electrolytes. Sweet provides energy. (Cats don’t have sweet taste buds (another mystery). Umami says meat or cheese.
Birds have only 30 taste buds, but parrots have several hundred. Cows have 25,000 taste buds in order to sort out good plants from bad, and carnivores have few taste buds. Fish have some taste buds on their lateral lines. A fly can taste through its feet and proboscis.
So all us vertebrates can taste. Most of us have taste buds on our tongues, specialized for our food preferences. They are simply receptor cells with neurotrasmitter molecules.
Okay. But that doesn’t give me a clue as to why Lucy and the chickens loved cracked corn and hated perfectly good ripe tomatoes. I still wonder if that poor heron liked the taste of gopher fur.