Back in the early 1960s, as a graduate student in zoology, I took a course entitled “Avifauna of Oklahoma” from George M. Sutton at the University of Oklahoma. The big take-home from this course was not all the scientific names, family and order characters, but instead the geographic distributions. I didn’t realize it at the time but Sutton was teaching us to see something local and quickly place that something into a global and evolutionary context. Consequently, “I saw it there” turned into “I saw it there and now this is the larger significance of that observation—why I saw it there and what it actually means to have seen it there.” Of course we went on field trips, the most memorable of which was to a heron rookery north of Muskogee. Two things happened that day to make this particular trip so memorable. First, I lost a contact lens. I blinked and it popped out of my eye, falling down into six inches of leaf litter as feces from several species of herons rained down on us from the birds above. When we got home, I immediately replaced those contacts with glasses. The second thing that happened was that we picked up a little blue heron that couldn’t fly and took it home with us.
Among the other students in that class was one named John O’Neill, at the time an undergraduate, but later to become a professional ornithologist and bird artist with a distinguished career at the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science. As a result of contact with Sutton, I’d decided to try my hand at bird art, too, and was open to the suggestion that we take this little heron home alive and try to paint its picture. Thus we arrived back in Norman, and John and I went to the small cottage that Karen and I were renting for $50 a month, spread some newspapers on the kitchen table, plunked the bird down, and proceeded to each paint its portrait. Afterwards, because I was, and still am, a parasitologist, we dissected it, looking for a reason that it was unable to fly. Its breast muscles were permeated with small white cysts, which we concluded were the tissue stages of a parasite, one of the Sarcocystis species.
We saw little blue herons everywhere we were near water in Costa Rica. The bird used to be called Florida caerulea, although was originally named by Linnaeus in 1758 as Herodius caerulea (as far as I can tell from reading Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae, 10th Ed.), but now officially known as Egretta caerulea; Egretta is the same genus as the snowy egret, that pure white bird. Probably need to think about that recognition, by scientists, that organisms originally thought to be different based on color are indeed quite closely related.
Little blue heron from near Tortuguero, Costa Rica:
The painting. The pencil legend on my painting reads: April 21-63, life size, from a bird picked up, either wounded or sick, at the heronry at Muskogee (3 mi. N.E.). Painted at home with the bird sitting on the kitchen table. JJJr.