Bird Lore: American Bittern

The American Bittern can be difficult to see. It is a large but secretive bird of fresh water wetlands. It is an uncommon but widespread northern breeder that has been seen in the Edmonds Marsh at least once and perhaps twice over the last 20 years. It is also an uncommon wintering species in Western Washington so, even though it is rare in Edmonds, marsh visitors should always be on the lookout for it. It could appear at any time of year and be heard during breeding season, early in the morning and evening.

One of my favorite nature writers, Pete Dunne, describes the bittern as “patience cast in feathers imitating reed bed.” This vase-shaped, streaked-neck heron is often noted as rigidly immobile. It moves slowly. When it stalks prey or maneuvers for a strike, it does so with near-glacial speed. This bittern feeds on fish, frogs, tadpoles, crayfish, crabs, salamanders, garter snakes, and aquatic insects. It may eat rodents when in drier habitats.

Due to its secretive nature and often inaccessible habitat, much remains to be researched about the habits of the American Bittern. It is known that the male defends its nesting territory with booming calls. Its courtship displays are not well known. A male may mate with two or three females. The nest, apparently built by the female, is a platform of cattails, reeds, and grasses, lined with fine grasses. It is situated in dense marsh growth above shallow water and sometimes on dry ground among dense grasses.

There are usually three to five eggs incubated by the female for a little under a month. it is not certain, but it appears the only the female cares for the young birds, feeding them partly digested food by regurgitation. Hatchlings remain at the nest for one to two weeks and are fed by the adult for about a month. Age at first flight is not known for certain. It is speculated to be at seven to eight weeks of age.

When approached, the American Bittern will extend its neck, point its bill upward, and sway its neck gently as if it is a reed in a light breeze. There are a number of collective nouns for a group of bitterns, including dash, freeze, pint, pretense and siege. A freeze of bitterns seems most apt.

The American Bittern is undergoing substantial declines in its population throughout its U.S. breeding area due to the ongoing loss and degradation of wetlands. In large, fresh water wetlands, this bittern may be locally abundant. Although the species has suffered population declines in the U.S., it is still considered to be a numerous breeder in parts of Canada.

The breeding call of the American Bittern is unmistakeable and unique. You can listen to one from British Columbia: These calls have inspired nicknames such as thunder-pumper and stake-driver.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.




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