GASP! THE GREY HERON!

“One of the easiest places to watch birds in Singapore is the Promenade Deck of the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Yishun. This deck is located right next to the well-equipped Cafeteria, and beside the Medicinal Garden inspired by the good webmaster of our site, Dr Wee Yeow Chin. All these areas are open to the public.

“The management of KTPH have made a deliberate attempt to attract wildlife to their premises. Fruiting trees have been planted, native fish have been stocked in the streams and ponds, and artificial floating islands have been anchored in the Yishun Lake, just beside the Promenade Deck.

“From the Deck, you can see quite a number of different species of large birds at fairly close range. On one of my regular visits there I saw this Grey Heron (Ardea cinera) sunning itself. It was turning to expose as much of itself as it could to the sun, which was blazing down.

“The bird had obviously been doing so for quite a while, because it was panting heavily, as can be clearly seen in the video.

“I observed it for a few minutes, then went, with a member of the Hospital staff, to attend to other matters around Yishun Lake. Upon returning about half an hour later, the bird was still standing out in the open.

“But shortly afterwards, it began hunting. This did not last long, and the bird did not enjoy any success as far as I could see.

“The heron must have found that getting overheated earlier on had been a half-baked idea.

“And as hunting had been an effort, It then decided to cool off and settled down in what would normally be a brooding position onto the wet surface of the floating island.

“I know that reptiles thermo-regulate their body temperatures by moving in and out of the sun. And birds do sun themselves for both enjoyment and to get rid of parasites. But the behaviour of this heron does raise some questions. Did it start out to sunbathe, begin hunting and then overheat, requiring it to cool down before carrying on? Anyone care to venture an opinion apart from the observation that mad dogs and Englishmen are not the only things that stay out in the noonday sun?

“Grey Herons are the tallest native birds in Singapore, with adults standing up to one meter. They are general feeders, consuming any fish or small animal that they can overpower. There is both a resident breeding population as well as a migrant group that visits from further north in Asia during the winter months.”

Lee Chiu San
Singapore
24th January 2015

6 Responses

  1. Subaraj Rajathurai

    Hi Chiu San,

    Interesting observation. Just a couple of clarifications. Birds also mainly sun-bathe to dry off the morning dew during the early hours. The Grey Heron (98 cm) is not the tallest native bird in Singapore as the Great-billed Heron (115 cm) is the tallest resident and when it comes to native visitors to our shores, the Lesser Adjutant Stork (129 cm) is the tallest.

    As for the behaviour you observed, I guess all species can feel the extreme heat and need to withdraw to shade or to cool off at times.

  2. Lee Chiu San

    Thanks for the clarification about tall birds, Subaraj. My photos were taken in the late afternoon, so there was no dew to be dried off. That heron stood out in the sun deliberately for quite a while.

  3. Based on the Grey Heron’s rather awkward posture, not only was the bird maximizing the surface area exposed to the afternoon sun, it was obviously also trying to expose its underwing parts.

    As such, I think the bird might have utilizing the hot sun to flush out & kill off as many bird mites &/or fleas as possible. And I can empathize with the heron’s apparent “mad Englishman” behaviour.

    There were 2 separate episodes (after rambling through forest undergrowth) where I suffered from terrible itching likely caused by bird mites. The 1st incident lasted 1.5 months, while the 2nd incident lasted 1 month.

    The bird mites can’t be seen with the naked eye, but there are distinct crawling sensations, & each bite feels like a sharp pinprick. Based on the direction of the crawling sensations, you can even predict where the next bite will occur. And at each “pricked” site, even w/o scratching, a small red spot will appear.

    Outcome: I was soon covered in extensive rash that itched 24/7. My fingers, palms & soles of feet were also bitten. Only my face & scalp were spared — these parts are much more oily & I guess maybe the oil smothers or deters the mites.

    Luckily I don’t have avian blood, so the bird mites eventually starved to death. If I were a bird, I guess I might have risked sunstroke (or drowning in oil) just to get rid of bird mites. On this note, if you see a bird adopting an awkward posture for hours in the hot sun, it is probably not a good idea to go near it !

  4. Lee Chiu San

    My sympathies regarding your misadventures and suffering from rashes. However, I doubt that bird mites are to blame. The jungles are full of all kinds of ticks and mites, and burrowing fly larvae that love to get under your skin.

    In the days when importation of cage birds was less controlled, some used to arrive in the pet shops covered with mites. Even today, the birds in substandard establishments might have mites. Anyone who handled birds while selecting them for purchase would know soon know about the mites, because the hands would begin to itch.

    Fortunately, the cure is relatively simple. Bird mites are not very hardy. There are veterinary sprays available over the counter that will remove them from pet birds. Several applications over the course of a fortnight, on all parts of the birds, and also on the cages and cage furnishings, usually do the trick.

    For bird mite infestations on humans, the solution is even easier. A very hot bath is sometimes all that is needed. If the problem persists, a follow-up shower using any one of the easily available flea and tick shampoos for dogs usually works. The active insecticides in such shampoos are usually too strong to be used on birds, but humans will survive because they are more thick skinned.

    • Like the Grey Heron, I don’t have access to a hot shower or bath. But the heat element does explain why the heron was sun-bathing for hours in the hot sun.

      In my case, the pinprick bites & rash are definitely not caused by fleas or ticks, because I’ve encountered these before & they are easily visible to the naked eye. One can also feel fleas jumping on & off the skin. Moreover, I’m allergic to flea bites — although I don’t get rash, each flea bite develops into a distinctive big welt with under-skin bleeding. I’d looked up images of fly larvae burrows, & my symptoms totally don’t match this either.

      For the suspect case of bird mites acquired from walking amongst normal forest undergrowth (no nettles or similar), I started itching only a few hours after exposure probably because I’m already on daily antihistamine for chronic nasal allergy.

      The antihistamine does help to delay the onset of itch from whatever causes, eg. I’m also allergic to cement dust (chromium). If I’m not already on antihistamine, exposure to cement dust (eg. floating from construction/ demolition/ renovation sites) will cause almost instantaneous itch & widespread rash on uncovered skin.

      On this note, might the Grey Heron have a case of avian skin allergy — to inorganic allergens &/or parasitic bites ?

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