The birds that were not to be eaten according to the Mosaic law include “the heron according to its kind” (“in its several species,” AT). (Lev. 11:13, 19; Deut. 14:12, 18) Its placement in the lists after the “stork,” and the Septuagint and Vulgate translations evidently indicate a water bird. The Hebrew name is considered by some as being derived from a root word meaning “to breathe hard,” or, possibly, “to snort,” likely in anger. Others suggest a closer connection of the name with the Hebrew word for “nose” (ʼaph), perhaps as descriptive of the bird’s beak. Since the Bible account shows that the name embraces birds within a certain “kind,” the Hebrew name may well include the different varieties to be found within the heron family (scientifically designated Ardeidae), such as the true heron, the egret and the bittern. All these birds have long sharp bills or beaks and some are noted for the unusual raucous sound they make when disturbed or excited.
The Smithsonian Series (1944, Vol. Nine, p. 111) says that, when disturbed, the young night heron “suddenly darts out its head at an intruder and with wide-open mouth utters a vociferous squawk that startles any except the steadiest of nerves.”
The birds of the heron family are basically waders, frequenting marshes, swamps, inland streams and lakes. They have long slender necks and long, bare, extraordinarily thin legs, and long toes including a large hind toe. With a stately stride they wade along, searching for frogs, small crabs, or small reptiles; or else they stand motionless, patiently waiting for small fish to come within their range, whereupon a lightning thrust of the bird’s long neck spears the fish with its pointed beak. Though nesting in colonies, they usually fish alone. Where trees are available they build their rather loosely arranged nests on the treetops, while in treeless swamps they make their nests among the rushes or reeds. Their large wings carry them in a rather slow majestic flight, legs stretched out behind but with the long neck doubled back so that the head rests between the shoulders, thus differing from the crane and ibis that fly with both their necks and legs outstretched.
While only one type of stork is frequent in Palestine, there are several varieties of herons: the common or gray heron, the buff-backed heron (often called the white ibis), and the purple heron. They may average about three feet (1 meter) in length with a wingspread of about the same span. They can be found around the Sea of Galilee, along the banks of the Jordan and Kishon Rivers, in marshy regions and along the seacoast.
The bittern is a somewhat shorter, stouter, browner variety of heron, also found in Palestine in marshy regions. With a length of about thirty inches (76 centimeters), the bittern characteristically has plumage streaked with black, buff and white, the underparts being a pale buff color with brown stripes, and the legs yellowish green. This color combination harmonizes exactly with the marsh grass it inhabits, and, when in danger, the bird stands motionless with neck and bill pointed upward. This, together with the vertical stripes, causes it to blend in perfectly with its surroundings in effective camouflage. Bitterns are also noted for the deep booming or pumping sound they make by expelling air from their gullets, the head and neck being violently contorted at the same time.
The egrets are among the most graceful and beautiful birds of the heron family, often having pure white plumage. Somewhat larger than other herons, with a length of up to four feet (1.2 meters), egrets are common in Palestine and are frequently found in association with grazing cattle, feeding on available insects.