Great Blue Herons Expelling Bile? (Graphic)

Retching Great Blue HeronRetching Great Blue Heron – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/1600, ISO 200, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

In March of 2009 I was photographing birds at the north beach of Fort De Soto County Park on the Gulf Coast of Florida. There were gulls, terns, blackbirds, shorebirds, pelicans and wading birds that were within easy reach of my lens.

As I sat on the warm sandy beach while photographing this Great Blue Heron it moved closer to me and then stopped. Then the heron started to retch and I thought at the time I was going to be able to photograph it expelling a pellet. The pellets contain bits of bone and fur that some bird species are unable to digest.

Great Blue Heron expelling bile in FloridaGreat Blue Heron expelling bile in Florida – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/1600, ISO 200, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

As I photographed the heron I could see an amber colored liquid blob emerge from the heron’s throat and although I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at I knew without a doubt that it was not a pellet.

Great Blue Heron bileGreat Blue Heron bile – Nikon D200, handheld, f6.3, 1/1600, ISO 200, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

The strand of amber colored liquid dripped from the heron’s bill unto the sand and by then I wondered if what I was seeing was bile, at that time I wasn’t sure that herons or other birds even produced bile.

Bile in humans aids in digestion by breaking down lipids and I suppose it serves the same function in birds.

Great Blue Heron post bile expulsionGreat Blue Heron post bile expulsion – Nikon D200, handheld, f8, 1/1000, ISO 200, Nikkor 80-400mm VR at 400mm, natural light

After the Great Blue Heron finished expelling the bile it rested on the beach and I was able to take a wonderful series of the heron right where I sat. I can’t imagine a heron in Utah moving that close to me, they are far more skittish and uncomfortable around humans here.

This was the only heron or bird that I had photographed expelling bile until last year.

Great Blue Heron expelling bile in UtahGreat Blue Heron expelling bile in Utah – Nikon D800, f7.1, 1/1600, ISO 500, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light

Last September while I was photographing a perched Great Blue Heron at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge I thought it was going to expel a pellet when it began to retch on a metal pole. Then through my lens I could see an amber strand of liquid that dripped from the heron’s bill and reached all the way down to the top of the post.

I’m not a bird biologist so I am not 100% certain that what I saw and photographed was bile but I can’t think of anything else it could be. I have researched birds and bile on line and found that they do excrete bile from their pancreas and liver. Why they would expel it, I have no clue.

I have only seen and photographed these two Great Blue Herons expelling bile in Florida and Utah. I now wonder how often this occurs.

Birds fascinate me.

Glen A. Fox posted this in the comments, apparently it is not bile but stomach juice:

What you are seeing is stomach juice, based on my many years of working on fish-eating birds. Bird bile is a very dark green. This not an abnormal phenomenon. Great that you are so observant and curious!

Life is good.

Mia

12 Comments

  1. Glen A. Fox April 1, 2016 at 6:30 am

    Mia and fellow readers,
    I can only speculate as to why they expel stomach juice from time to time. I suspect that it is a side-effect to excess production in response to a particular meal, or an empty stomach, and maybe is the equivalent to gastric reflux in humans. As I said, I can only speculate, but I have seen it often enough in fish-eating birds to think it is a normal phenomenon. Like Mia, I wish I could ask the birds!

    • Mia McPherson April 1, 2016 at 6:36 am

      Thanks so much for replying to our questions Glen, you and your comments ere are very much appreciated! You offer wonderful insights.

  2. Molly March 31, 2016 at 5:22 pm

    Cool. While not photos one would hang on their dining room wall, or any other wall in the house for that matter….:P they are lovely “captures” of birds performing natural behaviors. Birds as whole beings are much more interesting than only as objects for “pretty pictures.” I learn a lot from these posts of yours. Thanks.

  3. Mia McPherson March 31, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    Thanks for all your comments!

  4. Elephant's Child March 31, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    Fascinating. I hope that Glen can tell us more. Why are they expelling stomach juice?

  5. Glen A. Fox March 31, 2016 at 1:55 pm

    Mia,
    What you are seeing is stomach juice, based on my many years of working on fish-eating birds. Bird bile is a very dark green. This not an abnormal phenomenon. Great that you are so observant and curious!

    • Mia McPherson March 31, 2016 at 4:47 pm

      Thank you for responding and commenting Glen. Can you tell us why they expel the stomach juices?

  6. Patty Chadwick March 31, 2016 at 1:08 pm

    Very curios behavior!!!

  7. Beth Jochum March 31, 2016 at 10:14 am

    Fascinating!!

  8. Linda Laugen March 31, 2016 at 9:21 am

    EXPELLING BILE???? What in Heaven’s name is THAT all about??? Are these birds sick – or doing something normal? Any connection with oil pollution in sea water? I agree with “gross!” (Yet I had to look….)

  9. Dennis March 31, 2016 at 8:14 am

    Gross! 😉

  10. Bob McPherson March 31, 2016 at 6:31 am

    Great photos Mia. Interesting info on the Great Blue Heron.

Comments are closed.