Hard To Swallow: Great Blue Herons Eating Gophers In Golden Gate Park

Photo: Walter Thompson/Hoodline
By Walter Thompson - Published on June 23, 2016.

The gophers of Golden Gate Park spend most of their lives below ground, but as soon as they emerge, they're a potential meal for coyotes, great horned owls and other raptors. However, many park visitors have been astonished to learn that these furry critters have another mortal enemy: the great blue heron.

According to Victoria Heyse, a waterbird biologist at The San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory (SFBBO), there's a heron colony in Golden Gate Park that hosts five nests. Given the chance, every resident could make a meal of a pocket gopher, which can weigh up to 8.5 ounces.

Great blue herons are wading birds, but "they eat a variety of things," said Heyse. "They like to stalk their prey, so they'll wander around and really go for anything." Fish, amphibians and smaller birds are all on the menu, "as are small mammals, if they can manage to get them."

Mature great blue herons top out at just under five feet tall, and have a wingspan of about 80 inches. Using its tapered bill as a spear, a heron on a hunt will hover over a hole until it detects movement. Once an unsuspecting gopher disturbs the loosely packed dirt that serves as its front door, the heron drives its spear-like beak into the hole.

Voila: one gopher kebab, to go.

Since they lack teeth, great blue herons "can swallow a lot of things," said Heyse, who added that they manipulate their prey to get the easiest angle. Unlike birds of prey, which regurgitate small bones and fur, great blue herons digest everything. According to Heyse, that the birds usually live for five to seven years, although they've been known to live into their 20s in captivity.

The heronry in Golden Gate Park is watched over by volunteers from SFBBO's Colonial Bird Monitoring Program. Since 1982, trackers have visited the park to take population counts and map nest sites. Other heron colonies in San Francisco are located near Lake Merced, the Palace of Fine Arts and Stow Lake.

SFBBO accepts applications to the waterbird monitor program year-round, but volunteers won't be assigned until January/February. Applicants must have prior experience identifying relevant species and be able to drive on dirt roads. They're also required to attend an orientation before joining the monthly surveys, which take place between March and August.

To apply, contact Kristin Butler at kbutler [AT] sfbbo DOT org.

About 9 hours ago
San Francisco Chinatown

Long-delayed Empress of China reboot Empress by Boon to open June 18

More than six years after we lost the kitschy favorite Empress of China, the opening of its potential Michelin star contender Empress by Boon now looks to be just a month away. Read More

About 11 hours ago
San Francisco NoPa

11-year-old Bistro Central Parc in NoPa to be revived under new owner

Bistro Central Parc, the popular French bistro at 560 Central Avenue in the NoPa neighborhood that closed in December 2019, will be reopening under new ownership but under the same name in June. Read More

May 06, 2021
San Francisco Hayes Valley Mid-Market

Market Street’s upscale Zuni Cafe is eliminating tips altogether

When the James Beard Award-winning Zuni Cafe reopens for indoor dining, they’ll be closing the gap between front-of the-house and back-of-the-house wages by eliminating tips and adding a 20% service fee. Read More

May 05, 2021
San Francisco Castro Mission

Mission Bay coffee truck Spro Coffee expanding to the Castro this summer

Castro residents will soon have another cafe option in the neighborhood. Mission Bay-based mobile cafe Spro Coffee Lab will be opening its second location at 500 Church St., formerly Mauerpark. Read More