In this video, a clever Green Heron who found herself in possession of a piece of bread carefully places the bread on the water to lure in fish. (And it pays off- look at the size of that catch!) This is an example of a rare-- but widespread-- fishing strategy among the charismatic Green Herons, whereby they use bread or small sticks to bait fish.

Further, the bird -- in this video and other observations -- continually repositions the bait, like a fisherman recasting his line. How does the heron learn -- or decide-- to use bait? It is an extremely rare behaviour, and likely is not culturally transmitted; instead, it has arisen multiple times independently.

Some have argued that they learn through accidental experience, by dropping something in the water and noticing a resulting bunch of fish. In Consciousness and Cognition: Fragments of Mind and Brain (edited by Henri Cohen and Brigitte Stemmer), the authors touch on this peculiar behavior in a chapter about innovation and invention. Are birds are able to devise completely new foraging strategies, like baiting? Or do they merely "find new uses for genetically programmed innate behaviors?"

They write: "[The Green Heron] captures fish by relying on several innate approaches, but isolated individuals of this species have, on rare occasion, been observed to toss a morsel of food or a small twig into the water in order to bait the fish. When a fish approaches to investigate, the bird grabs it. This bait fishing has been observed in a few scattered places around the USA and at one park in Japan. This fishing technique has apparently not been passed on from one heron to another, and the behavior also vanishes and is not seen again for long stretches of time, despite the fact that this method of fishing is very successful. The rarity of its use implies that bait fishing represented an occasional and independent invention by particularly innovative herons."

So perhaps all around the world, the Newtons and Einsteins of Green Herons are independently coming up with the idea of fishing using bait-- much as several of our human ancestors in different areas independently came up with the idea of using writing, and agriculture. How does a cognitively complex behavior like baiting, or writing, go from being the species-wide exception to being the species-wide rule?

Let's keep paying attention to the cute and clever green heron. Maybe they'll give us some answers.


Huge thanks once again to Paul Manning, DPhil student in Zoology at Oxford, for sharing this video! As Paul said, in this video "Green heron catches a fish... and my heart."