Lake Norman & Mooresville

The bird man of Denver and his great blue heron

For the better part of the last six months, Gerald Howard has been entertaining a guest that visits him almost every morning - for hours at a time - on his dock.

The 76-year-old, retired Duke Power employee has a history of feeding creatures that visit his backyard, and a great blue heron - a typically shy bird - is not the first creature to take advantage of the Denver native's kindness.

He and his wife, Iola, 77, have lived in the SailView community for eight years. Crows were some of the first animals to pick through Howard's offerings. Backyard birds peck at the seed in his feeders. Dozens of hefty carp slurp wet dog food through holes in a small make-shift container that hangs from the dock.

One of his recent favorite memories was watching the heron stand on the shore and pluck bumblebees out of the air for a morning snack.

Pretty much anything that eats qualifies for handouts.

"He's always feeding something," said his daughter, Amy Dacus.

Before moving to the lake, the once avid hunter fed table scraps to a male grey fox that visited his backyard regularly. The fox, which he named Ralph, eventually found a mate and had babies - all of them occasionally fed by Howard.

Most of the fox family remained skeptical, but not Ralph.

"I could talk to him," said Howard. "He wasn't scared of me at all."

For the heron, chicken gizzards and sliced hot dogs get quickly gobbled up, and Howard watches from the big A-frame windows in his dining room, overlooking the lake. The dock's bronze-capped rails, and the backyard's thick tree cover, frame the slim, grey bird.

Howard fills a plastic half-gallon coffee container with water and some of the bird's favorites. Within moments from setting it on the dock, as Howard walks away, the heron follows and quickly bops towards its brunch.

"It's really interesting," said Iola Howard. "I mean I can't believe he can go down on the dock with that bird; it's almost like they're communicating. But that's his job. I stay in the house."

"We do," said Howard. "We communicate. He grunts all the time and I grunt back at him. When he flies off, he really hollers. He'll sit out there and sunbathe. I have a lot of fun watching him. I just really enjoy it."

Their daughter had heard stories about the duo's relationship for months, and one morning, while visiting her parents, the heron arrived almost on cue.

"I looked and I said 'Oh, he really does come,'" said Dacus. "Then dad disappeared and the next thing you see is this bird sitting on the dock and dad comes down with the bucket and, as he turns around, the bird follows him. I didn't realize how cool it really was and how close he got to this bird."

Dacus even contacted an environmental educator to inquire about the rarity of the encounter.

"Great blue herons, or 'cranes,' are very shy, solitary creatures," said Julie Higgie, an environmental educator with Lake Norman Wildlife Conservationists, in an email. "You are fortunate to be able to observe one so close up."

But, if you do feed wildlife, Higgie cautioned, "Some people feed bread to waterfowl. Bread is harmful because it can make them dependent upon it and doesn't provide proper nutrients to waterfowl, or any other wildlife."

Howard's heron doesn't seem too picky.

"He'd eat 10 pounds at a time if you fed him that much," said Howard. "I just put a couple hot dogs in the bucket and he sticks his head down there and eats.