Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

American Bittern

Dear Bird Folks,

A few weeks ago you started writing about American Bitterns, but then switched to night-herons. That was fine, but I would like to know more about bitterns. Could you write an entire column just about them?

– Jack -Barnstable, MA


It happens, Jack,

Occasionally, I’ll be focused on one topic and then get sidetracked onto something else. It’s like when I’m sent to the store for a loaf of bread and come home with a pie and a pint of ice cream instead. It’s a mistake for sure, but I would argue that it was a better outcome than the original plan. Bread’s no fun. My wife disagrees, so the next time she’ll write down what she wants on a list, which is great…if I remember to take the list. But I digress. It’s time for me to concentrate and write about the bird you want to know more about. Peacocks, right?

Here in North America we have two species of bitterns, the American Bittern and a smaller species that is conveniently known as the Least Bittern. If you’ve never seen either one before, you are forgiven. Both birds are notoriously hard to find. Spotting one is more serendipitous than a planned event. The last time I saw an American Bittern was a few winters ago. We were hiking along a kettle pond in South Orleans, when my wife (of course) pointed it out. This definitely was serendipitous (can you tell I learned a new word?), as bitterns tend to spend their days totally isolated in thick marshes and not walking on the shore of kettle ponds. But even if this bird had remained hidden in a thick marsh, my wife would have most likely spotted it anyhow. She’s like a bloodhound, only with less drool.

Related to herons, but not nearly as showy, bitterns skulk through both salt and freshwater marshes (mostly fresh) in search of the usual marsh fare, including fish, frogs and surprisingly, a high number of insects. Bitterns are noted for two distinguishing characteristics, the first one being their excellent camouflage. When the bird is nervous or wants to vanish from view, it will point its head skyward, allowing its streaked neck to blend in with the surrounding cattails and reeds. And if the wind happens to be blowing, the clever bird will actually sway along with the moving reeds to further add to the illusion. (Really.) This technique is an excellent way for the bird to conceal itself, unless there aren’t any reeds around. Much like a rabbit or a chipmunk, a bittern will also freeze when it’s in the open. Pointing its head straight up doesn’t really work in this case. Now, instead of blending in, the bird sticks out like a signpost…without a sign.

For the most part, birds in the heron family aren’t very good singers. Their vocalizations are limited to harsh squawks and other similar unpleasant sounds. But the noise produced by the American Bittern is darn right creepy. It’s often described as a loud gulping sound, like a giant swallowing a pig. (I added that last part.) While their call is unique, it actually has been a detriment. There once was a time when bitterns were persecuted by local residents who were convinced there was something evil living in the nearby marsh. And watching the bird produce these noises is even more unsettling. In order to generate the gulping sounds, the bird’s body becomes twisted and contorted, like a cat coughing up a fur ball (or a giant coughing up a pig). As you might expect, the calls are thought to be used for mate attraction, which makes perfect sense to me. What female isn’t attracted to the sounds of gulping and the sight of contortions?

One of my most memorable bittern experiences happened in the middle of nearby Nauset Marsh. One day in early fall, a friend (Jeff) and I canoed out into the marsh to look for migrating shorebirds. We were hiking across the mudflats when Jeff spotted a bittern flying just over our heads. (Why don’t I ever see the bird first?) A few days later, we visited the same location again in hope of perhaps finding the bittern once more. We found it all right, but not all of it. Sadly, the only thing we found was the bird’s head. What happened? We don’t know for sure, but given that the marsh is fairly isolated from land predators, we assumed it must have fallen victim to another bird, probably a Great Horned Owl. Either that or the giant got tired of eating pigs. Here’s something I’ll bet you didn’t know. Except for a few extra plumes or other subtle plumage variations, most herons don’t undergo any serious changes during the breeding season. With bitterns, the changes are even more understated. As we’ve noted, this bird doesn’t like to draw attention to itself. So, in order to look flashy when breeding, it modifies its eye color. That’s all. Most of the year the bird has yellow eyes, but come spring, the eyes turn orange. That’s as gaudy as this brown bird gets.

I wish I could tell you that American Bitterns were doing great, Jack, but alas, like a lot of birds that depend upon wetlands, their population appears to be declining. Finding one, especially around here, will most certainly be serendipitous. (That’s the last time, I promise.) Your best bet is to keep your eyes open anytime you are near a wetland and listen for the distinctive gulping sound. Although if you hear gulping near my house, it’s probably just me eating pie with ice cream, which means I forgot to buy bread again.