Birds – Least Bittern

(Ardetta exilis)


Male—Subcrested; top of head, back, and tail black, with green reflections; back of neck and sides of head brownish red, also wings, coverts, and edges of some quills ; throat whitish, shading into buff on under parts; the deepest shade, almost a yellow-brown, on sides; much buff on wings. Bill, eyes, and feet yellow; legs long and greenish.

Female—Similar to male, but chestnut above, and the darker under parts are lightly streaked with dark brown.

Range—Throughout temperate North America, nesting from Maine and the British Provinces southward ; winters from Gulf states to West Indies and Brazil ; less common west of the Rocky Mountains, but found on the Pacific coast to north-ern California.

Season—Summer resident.

The smallest member of a family of waders noted for their large size, the least bittern brings down their average consider-ably; for it is only about a foot long, a quarter the length of the

next species. Fresh-water marshes, inaccessible swamps, boggy lands, and sedgy ponds are where these secretive little birds hide, with rails and marsh wrens, gallinules, bobolinks, red-winged blackbirds, and swamp song sparrows for neighbors among the rushes. Living where no rubber boot may follow them through the muck, they usually remain unknown to many human neighbors, unless some sluggish stream running through their territory will float a skiff and a bird student within field-glass range. These bitterns are by no means the solitary hermits the larger species are. Colonies of a dozen or more couples are found nesting within the same acre.

However retiring in habits by preference, the least bitterns show no especial shyness when approached. Mr. Chamberlain tells of a small colony that spend the summer within a stone’s throw of a street-car track and a playground in the busiest part of Brookline, near Boston—probably the home their ancestors were reared in ; for all the birds of this family show marked respect and attachment for an old homestead. In Westchester County, New York, there is a certain sluggish river whose reedy shores contain twenty nests or more within sight of a well-worn foot bridge. Here, looking down into the sedges, the birds are seen running about through the jungle, with their necks out-stretched and their heads lowered, as they hunt for food—small minnows, or young frogs and tadpoles, lizards, and bugs winged and crawling. Disturb the birds, and they take wing at once, with a harsh, croaking note, qua, and flapping their wings slowly and heavily, retreat no farther than to a denser part of the marsh, into which they drop, and are lost in the rushes.

Dr. Abbott writes of a bittern’s nest that he found near Poaetquissings Creek—that mine of nature’s treasures he has opened for the delight of easy-chair naturalists. ” Such finds make red-letter days,” he says. ” The nest itself was a loosely woven mat of twigs and grass, yet strong enough to be lifted from the tuft of bulrush upon which it rested. There were a single dirty blue white egg and four fuzzy baby bitterns not a week old. They were clad in pale buff down, scantily dusted over them, and an abundance of straight white hairs as long as their bodies. These young birds were far less awkward, even now, than herons of the same or even greater age. As I took one up, it thrust its opened beak at me, but, becoming quickly reconciled, seemed to take pleasure in the warmth of my hand. At times it uttered a peculiarly clear, fifelike cry . . . free from every trace of harshness.”

Near sunset and in the twilight of night and morning is when these bitterns, like all their kin, step boldly out of their retreats and indulge in longer flights from home. Many men of science have thought the powder-down tracts on their bodies glow with phosphorescent light in the dark and attract fish to the water’s edge, where the bird stands motionless, ready to transfix a victim with its beak. But as yet this is only an interesting theory that has still to be proved.