A few years ago, while out cruising the backroads near Inman, we discovered a group of blue heron nests high in trees along the river. We stop by each spring to check on them and to marvel at the almost comical sight of great blue herons standing tall in the middle of hodge-podge collections of twigs and leaves in the top of cottonwood trees. We checked on them just recently, and they are there again this year. I’m reminded of a funny conversation I had with a nursing home resident a couple years before I retired.
That particular day while walking down the hall at the large nursing home where I worked as a maintenance technician, I passed by a sunroom where an elder was working on a crossword puzzle. Liz was a classy lady whom I love talking with, so I swung in for some conversation. The long windows in that sunroom overlook Inman’s nice little park pond, where a great blue heron was fishing along the bank. She saw me watching the heron and asked “Are you watching the shitepoke?” I turned and asked her “What did you call it?” “A shitepoke,” she stated; “Are you watching the shitepoke?”
I remember hearing my grandpa talk about shitepokes when I was a kid but had no idea he was talking about herons. As I stood there in the sunroom, chuckling at what Liz had just said, another elder who heard nothing of our conversation walked into the room and promptly asked “Are you watching that shitepoke over there?”
Apparently the slang name “shitepoke” is an old country name given generations ago to any member of the heron family because of behavior I guess I have never witnessed.
Evidently herons have a habit of defecating when startled and flushed from their hunting spot, often leaving a long white ribbon of digested fish parts in the air as they flee. I searched at length but nowhere could I find a language or nationality of origin, but EVERYTHING I found agreed on what it meant. The last four letters “poke” literally means a sack of some sort, and from watching British detective shows on TV, I know the first five letters “shite” literally mean _ _ _ _ or excrement, thus the term “shitepoke” was meant to mean a sack of excrement. Apparently our ancestors named the birds based on what they observed.
I also found that the term shitepoke is supposedly used (understandably) in some parts of the country as a derogatory term. The explanation went as follows: “A shitepoke is someone who revels in the drama of needless commotion accompanied by a lot of noise and fanfare, ultimately leaving someone else to clean up the mess. Simplified, a shitepoke is someone who’s only contribution to an issue or situation is a load of shite.” On one of the many discussion sites I visited, someone remembered never hearing their parents swear, but rather hearing them say “Oh shitepoke” when angry.
A few other common birds have nicknames that reflect something obvious about their behavior. Baltimore Orioles make those amazing hanging nests, earning them the nickname “hang nest.” American Goldfinches are also known as “thistle birds” because of their love for thistle seed. Cuckoos for some reason can often be heard just before a rain storm, prompting the old timers to call them “rain crows or storm crows,” and the nickname “bob white” for quail should be self-explanatory.
I found a few other nicknames for herons also, most of them more honorable than shitepoke. There was Ol’ Cranky, Big Cranky, Grandfather, Crane, Blue Crane, Gray Crane, Long John and Poor Joe. Over the years I’ve written a couple stories on great blue herons, and now I’m wondering if readers found them to be boring and mundane cause’ I’ve always just referred to them as great blue herons and never anything as interesting as shitepoke or Ol’ Cranky. Before my conversation with Liz ended that day, I remember asking if she ever heard anyone say what they thought the word shitepoke meant. She thought for a second, then said “Nope; we just always called them “shitepokes” and I guess that’s what they were!”
Continue to Explore Kansas Outdoors.
Steve can be contacted by email at [email protected]