In the story, Sylvia is a shy girl who is growing up. When she meets the stranger, the hunter in the story, she is drawn to him and enjoys his company. Sylvia feels the stirrings of a first love. The hunter wants to find and kill the white heron for his collection. Because he thinks Sylvia can help him find the bird, he offers her ten dollars to show him the heron's nest. Sylvia wants to gain his approval, and she and her grandmother need the money, but her conflict develops once she does find the heron's nest.
After climbing the tall pine and viewing the beautiful world in which the heron lives, Sylvia sees the heron itself. Its beauty and grace speak to her soul. For a little while, she lives in the heron's world and is changed forever. After that, Sylvia cannot give up the heron. She chooses instead to endure her grandmother's displeasure and the hunter's frustration and disappointment.
In Sarah Orne Jewett's "A White Heron," Sylvia wants to please the stranger, the young ornithologist who seeks the white heron; however, she is conflicted because she does not wish to harm this beautiful bird. Thus, the main conflict is Man (Humans) vs. Nature.
When Sylvia first spots the young man, she is frightened and hides from him, but he insists upon asking her name, so she replies, "Sylvy." He accompanies her home, hoping that her grandmother will allow him to stay overnight. Despite Sylvia's fears, the grandmother is warm and cordial to the young man, extending her hospitality. After supper, the young man declares that he is making a collection of birds:
There are two or three very rare ones I have been hunting for these five years. I mean to get them on my own ground if they can be found.
When Mrs. Tilley asks if he cages them, the ornithologist tells her that he stuffs and preserves them, and he adds that he is looking for the white heron of which he caught a glimpse three miles from there. "They have never been found in this area," he adds.
When Sylvia hears the man's declaration, her heart skips a beat because she knows that strange white bird, whose voice is often heard in the woods on stormy nights. Then, when the young man wants this bird so badly that he is willing to offer ten dollars for its capture, Sylvia is stirred. Gradually, too, she loses her fear of the young man, and she begins to feel that he is "most kind and sympathetic."
So enamored is Sylvia of this young man and desirous of his payment that she considers finding the heron's home and revealing its whereabouts to him. But, on the morning that she discovers the nest of the great white heron and his mate, Sylvia is in awe. She wonders what the young man will think when she tells him where to find the bird. So, she starts for home.
Seeing her approach, the grandmother calls to the shy girl. She urges Sylvia to talk, but Sylvia says nothing, despite her grandmother's rebukes. Even as the young man's "kind appealing eyes are looking straight in her own," Sylvia starts to reconsider her decision to protect the birds, thinking that he can make them rich with money; he is "worth making happy," and he waits to hear what she has to tell him. But, suddenly, Sylvia cannot speak: "...She cannot tell the heron's secret and give its life away." She leaves the young man puzzled and frustrated, and her grandmother rather exasperated.