Birds – American Bittern

(Botaurus lentiginosus)


Length—Varies from 24 to 34 inches.

Male and Female—Subcrested; upper parts freckled with shades of brown, blackish, buff, and whitish; top of head and back of neck slate color, with a yellow-brown wash; a black streak on sides of neck; chin and throat white, with a few brown streaks; under parts pale buff, striped with brown; head flat. Bill yellow, and rather stout, and sharply pointed; tail small and rounded; legs long and olive colored.

Range—Temperate North America; nests usually north of Virginia, and winters from that state southward to the West Indies.

Season—Summer resident, or visitor from May to October; permanent in the south.

The booming bittern, whose ” barbaric yawp ” echoes from lonely marshes, grassy meadows, and swamps through the summer, enjoys greater popularity in name than in deed; for he is a hermit, a shy, solitary wanderer, that even Thoreau, no less secluded than he, knew by his voice chiefly. ” Many have heard the stake driver,” says Hamilton Gibson, “but who shall locate the stake ? ” The same bird whose voice sounds like a stake being driven into a bog, or, again, “like the working of an old-fashioned wooden pump,” or like the hoarse crowing of a raven when it flies at night, has for its love song the most dismal, hollow bellow, that comes booming from the marshes at evening, a mile away, with a gruesome solemnity. One of these calls has been written pump-er-lunk, pump-er-lunk, pump-erlunk; but a better rendering, perhaps, is Dr. Abbott’s puck-lagrook, which has been verified again and again.

After the sedges in the marshes have grown tall, it is next to impossible to find the bird; but on its arrival in spring, when it pumps most vociferously in the fens, the paddler up some lonely creek follows the sound until he sees this freckled fellow standing perfectly still in the low grass, its head held erect and pointed upward. Not a muscle moves while the bird remains in ignorance of the watcher. An hour passes, and it might be a dead stump standing there in the twilight. It looks particularly like a stump if it has assumed another favorite position, of drawing in its head until it touches its back. Suddenly a succession of snappings and gulpings, to fill its lungs with air, convulses the creature, and then three booming bellowings come forth with gestures that suggest horrible nausea. One who did not see the bird in the act of making these noises would imagine from their quality that they came from below the water, and there are many stories in circulation among people who do not go to the pains to verify them, that water is actually swallowed and ejected by bitterns to assist their voices; out it is not.

Come upon the hermit suddenly, and it seems paralyzed by fright. When danger actually threatens, up go the long head feathers, leaving the neck bare and making the bird look formidable indeed. The plumage is ruffled, the wings are extended, and if the adversary comes too near, a violent slap from the strong wing and a thrust from the very sharp beak makes him wish his zeal for bird lore had been tempered with discretion. A little water spaniel was actually stabbed to death as a result of its master’s inquisitiveness.

During the day, the bittern, being extremely timid, keeps well hidden in the marshes; but it is not a nocturnal bird, by any means, however well it likes to migrate by night. To some it may appear sluggish and indolent as it stands motionless for hours, but it is simply intelligently waiting for frogs, lizards, snakes, large winged insects, meadow mice, etc., to come within striking distance, when, quick as thought, the prey is transfixed. A slow, meditative step also gives an impression of indolence, but the bittern is often only treading mollusks out of the mud with its toes.

In the air the bittern still moves slowly, and with a tropical languor flaps its large, broad wings, and trails its legs behind, to act as a rudder as it flies close above the tops of the sedges. When a longer journey than from one part of the marsh to another must be made, the solitary traveller mounts high by describing circles; and, secure under the cover of darkness, makes bold and long excursions. It is only in the nesting season that we find these birds in couples. Then neither one is ever far away from the rude grassy nest that holds from three to five pale olive buff eggs hidden among the sedges, on the ground, in a marsh. There are those who assert that young bitterns are good food.