The American Bittern is found throughout temperate North America, Guatemala, and Cuba, while the European species (B. Stellaris) ranges throughout the temperate parts of the Old World and south to India and Burma.
The origin of the name Bittern, by which these birds are generally known, is open to more or less doubt, but it is apparently a corruption from some name given in imitation of the very peculiar notes of the birds. ” The booming of the Bittern” is a familiar expression, and from the earliest times its notes have been variously likened to the bellowing of cattle, the driving of a stake into swampy ground, the working of an old wooden pump, etc. The English species, now almost unknown in that country, was formerly called Bittour, Bator, Butter-bump, etc., while the American species is quite generally called the Stake-driver. The following extract from Mudie will give some idea of the note of the European Bittern: “Anon a burst of savage laughter breaks upon you, gratingly loud, and so unwonted and odd that it sounds as if the voices of a bull and a horse were combined, the former breaking down his bellow to suit the neigh of the latter, in mocking you from the sky.” Hudson, in his “British Birds,” says of the notes, “When flying he utters a harsh, powerful scream, and he has besides a strange vocal performance, called ‘booming,’ a sound that resembles the bellowing of a bull.”
The American Bittern has no such roar, but produces a sound very suggestive indeed of the driving of a stake. Many attempts have been made to represent the notes by syllables, such as pump-aú gah, as rendered by Nuttall, chunk-a-lunk-chunk, quank chunk-a-lunk-chunk, by Samuels, while according to Bradford Torrey, whom we shall quote later, it is most nearly represented by plum-pudd’n', giving both vowels the sound of u in full, dwelling a little upon plum, and a strong accent on the first syllable of puddin’. In any event it is a very peculiar voice which possesses also the power of deceiving the hearer as to the position and distance of the performer. When once heard it is not likely to be forgotten.
The manner in which this curious vocal effort is produced has given rise to most entertaining literature. Some early writers supposed that the bill was put inside a hollow reed to increase the volume of sound, but the greater number insisted that it was made with the bill partly under water, for it sounds, as Audubon well says, “as if the throat was filled with water.” I will quote from but one of these accounts, that given by Count Wodzecki of the European species as late as 1852. He says in part: “The artist was standing on both feet, his body horizontal and his bill in the water, and then a rumbling began, the water squirting about all the time. After a few sounds I heard the ü sound; the bird lifted his head, threw it backward, and thrust his bill into the water, and then he uttered a roar so fearfully loud that I was frightened.”
It appears to be quite commonly supposed that our American Bittern produces the “booming” with the bill partially submerged, and a wellknown writer on natural history in this country claims to have been an eye-witness to the performance, stating that “the bird’s beak, when it uttered the cry, was not quite withdrawn from the water, and its voice, therefore, was materially modified by this fact.”
As a matter of fact, there is nothing peculiar in the vocal apparatus of the Bittern, and he depends entirely upon it for the production of the notes. It is simply that the natural shyness of the bird makes close observation difficult. In this particular, Torrey on one occasion enjoyed exceptional facilities and gives the following account: “First the bird opens his bill quickly and shuts it with a click; then he does the same thing again with a louder click; and after from three to five such snappings of the beak he gives forth the familiar trisyllabic notes, repeated from three to eight times. With the preliminary motions of the bill the breast is seen to be distending; the dilatation increases until the pumping is well under way and, so far as we could make out, does not subside in the least until the pumping is quite over. It seemed to both of us that the bird was swallowing air, gulping it down, and with it distending his crop; and he appeared not to be able to produce the resonant pumping notes until this was accomplished. It should be remarked, however, that the gulps themselves, after the first one or two at least, give rise to familiar sounds of much the same sort. The entire performance, but especially the pumping itself, is attended with violent convulsive movements, the head and neck being thrown upwards and then forwards, like the Night Heron’s when it emits its quow, only with much greater violence. The snap of the bill, in particular, is emphasized by a vigorous jerk of the head.” Other observers have witnessed much the same state of affairs and all agree that it is produced only by an apparently violent effort, Brewster stating that a bird he once observed appeared “as if he were afflicted with violent nausea or were trying to get rid of some obstruction in his throat.”