Doc’s Memoirs: Requiem for a blue heron (April 5, 2023)

D E Larsen DVM

It was the third week of the fly-tying class I took through Linn Benton Community College. The course was conducted in the evening at Sweet Home High School.

“Tonight, we are going to tie a popular nymph, the tied-down caddis,” Red said as he laid out his materials. “Most of the skills you need for this fly have already been covered in the first two classes. We are going to learn one more skill tonight. That will be dubbing fur. Actually, we dub a lot of different materials in this day and age. But tonight, we will be using rabbit fur that is dyed yellow. It’s a simple technique useful for the bodies of many flies you will tie.”

Red was almost famous among the Sweet Home fishermen. He fished with flies exclusively, and this class not only covered the tying of those flies, but it also covered a lot of fishing techniques and local secrets.

We quickly reached the point where we waited for Red to demonstrate his fur dubbing.

“Before we wrap the body, we need to tie in the back feather,” Red said. “This material I will give you tonight is precious to me. I came across a dead blue heron on the river some years ago.

“I gathered his flight feathers. That is illegal, but like many things, only if you get caught. These feathers have proved perfect for the tied-down back of this nymph. The feather’s barbules collect small air bubbles, making this nymph more life-like. The fish just can’t resist it.”

Red carefully dispensed five or six barbs from his feather supply to everyone in the class. The law protecting birds extends to dead birds. This is to prevent people from shooting a bird for its feathers, claiming they found it dead. So, if you find a dead bird, you should just leave it in place.

“A lot of guys get a little fancy with their dubbing, and they make a long thread loop that they use to hold the material a little firmer,” Red said. “I consider that unnecessary. I just apply wax to the thread and roll the fur onto it between my two fingers. Then you wrap the body. Many bodies you wrap will be tapered, but we want an even body over the entire length of this fly.

We tied in the blue heron feather’s barbs at the fly’s tail end. After we dubbed a body of yellow fur and wrapped the body, we tied the thread in at the head, then bending the backing feather over the top of the dubbed body, we tied them down and wrapped the head

The fly was finished with glue applied to the head. A perfect tied-down caddis. A common insect in the local streams and a trendy food item with the local fish.

I started fly fishing when I was 11 years old, at the suggestion of my newly acquired brother-in-law. I purchased a fly rod, reel, and a double tapered fly line, size H-G-H. That sizing system went by the wayside years ago.

Following this class, I tied flies for many years. I tied fly rods for the kids from fiberglass blanks, and we fished local waters and the high lakes for years.


A year or two following that class, June called the clinic. I heard Ruth on the phone.

“Doctor Larsen doesn’t do birds except for farm birds like chickens, turkeys, geese, or ducks,” Ruth said.

After listening again, Ruth sat the receiver down and stepped back to talk with me.

“It’s June on the phone,” Ruth said. “They caught a blue heron at their pond. It has a broken leg and is in pretty bad shape. I tried sending them elsewhere, but she would like you to look at the bird for them.”

I rubbed my forehead with my left hand. I didn’t want it known that I would look at birds and I was not authorized to treat wildlife. But June and Bob were good clients, and this could be considered a farm bird, with a little stretch of one’s imagination.

“Okay, tell her I will look at the bird as a special favor,” I said. “But make no promises regarding treatment.”

“She sounds like this bird is in bad shape,” Ruth said. “I can’t imagine one of these birds just letting someone pick them up.”

It wasn’t long, and June was in the reception area with a frail blue heron in her arms.

When I got to the exam room, the bird was lying on the exam table, his right eye following my every movement.

“We have seen him several times in the last week,” June said. “But today, he was in the small pond by the house, and Bob just went out and picked him up. He is skin and bones, and that leg looks beyond repair to me, but I will leave that decision to you, Doc.”

June’s assessment was pretty accurate. This bird was, indeed, skin and bones. I am not sure that I had seen a bird this emaciated before. And his right leg was not only fractured, but it was hanging by a strip of tissue on the medial side of the leg.

It looked like it had been shot, and judging from the curvature of the remaining bone, I would say it had been shot with a thirty-caliber rifle. The bone was black on both sides of the fracture, and if there was any circulation in the distal leg, it was marginal at best. There would be no repairing this leg.

“This leg is toast, and this bird is starved to death,” I said. “I think it needs to be put to sleep.”

“That was our thought,” June said. “We didn’t want to do it and then get into trouble.”

“I’m sort of in the same boat,” I said. “I have no special protection from prosecution for a wildlife violation. I guess I better make a telephone call.”

I called the Oregon State Police office in Albany, and with luck, I was able to speak with the game officer.

“This is Dr. Larsen in Sweet Home,” I said. “I’m a veterinarian, and I have a client who brought in a blue heron this afternoon. This bird is emaciated and has had one leg nearly shot off. It is hanging by a thin strap of tissue. From the look of things that happened several weeks ago, it looks like a wound from a thirty-caliber bullet.”

“That sounds pretty bad for the bird,” the officer said. “We always seem to have a few idiots around that think it’s fun to shoot something like that.”

“This leg is not repairable, and this bird is not going to live long in its present condition,” I said. “I think I should put it to sleep.”

“If you are asking permission, I can’t give you that, but I will assure you that I won’t ticket you for doing it,” the officer said.

“Fair enough,” I said. “I would feel better if you were here so I could shake your hand on that, but I guess I trust your word.”

“You have my word,” the officer said. “How do you dispose of the body?”

“All the animals that die here are either returned to the owner, or they go to the county for cremation,” I said.

“That’s good; send the bird for cremation, don’t return it to the client,” the officer said.

“Thanks for your time. That is what will be done,” I said.

I returned to the exam room and told June what would happen.

“The game officer agreed that euthanasia was the best option for this bird,” I said. “I will put it to sleep and send it for cremation.”

“Do we owe you anything?” June asked.

“No, I can’t charge you for something that I am not authorized to do in the first place,” I said. “Thanks for bringing in the poor guy. His end of life will be more pleasant than starving in a pond somewhere.”

June left, and Ruth stayed with the bird as I retrieved a dose of euthanasia solution. Finding his heart was no problem, with no muscle on his breast. I steadied the heart with my left hand and inserted the needle with my right. The bird was gone before the injection was complete.

“I will grab a bag for him,” Ruth said. “I think we already have the county coming in the morning. The freezer is almost full.”

I stood at the table, remembering Red’s comments about his blue heron feathers. “This guy will be cremated tomorrow,” I thought to myself. “Who would know.”

– David Larsen is a retired veterinarian who practiced 40 years in Sweet Home. More of his stories are available on his blog at