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What Would Eat a Bittern?

Dear Bird Folks,

A few years ago I saw an American Bittern out in Nauset Marsh. It was one of the coolest birds that I’ve ever seen. I went back the next day to show a friend and all that we found was the bittern’s head and the rest of the bird had been eaten. Any ideas what ate it?

-Jeff, Orleans


Hey Jeff,

What have you been doing for the past “few” years? Have you been so busy that it took you this long to write a question? Or have you been stuck all this time behind one of these fun people who like to write checks in the “express line” at Stop and Shop?

First of all, I’ll bet most people out there in newspaper land have never even seen an American Bittern. They are not all that common here on Cape Cod and, when they are around, they are hard to find as they can be rather shy birds. Bitterns are in the heron family and look a lot like young night herons. They are about 2 feet tall and are mostly streaky brown. They like to keep to the tall grasses and reeds where they walk slowly and stealthily.

As to what chowed down your bittern can only be guessed at, now that it is years after the fact. Since the entire body was completely gone, I would have to say that it was probably the work of a greenhead fly. Greenheads have been known to eat Canada Geese whole and I’ve seen one greenhead swallow a guy who was kayaking in the marsh. The poor guy never knew what hit him. However, the greenhead later spit out the kayak, which I quickly tied to the roof of my car and drove off with.

Unlike most herons, bitterns usually don’t roost in trees, so it could have fallen prey to a fox or coyote. Much of Nauset Marsh is accessible to land mammals at low tide, so a sleeping bittern could have become a meal for one of our opportunistic canines. However, my first guess is that your bittern was lunch for a Great Horned Owl. Great Horned Owls are ferocious predators. They really will hunt and eat a Canada Goose or even a swan, and I’m not kidding this time. The list of creatures that these owls eat is rather lengthy, but included in the list are bitterns.

So put your money on the owl, Jeff, it is my best guess. They love to hunt out in Nauset Marsh and will eat anything that they come across. Well, almost anything, even the mighty Great Horned Owl will stay clear of a greenhead fly. A very wise decision.