American Bittern © Mark Grimason

Take 5: Once Bittern, Twice Shy

Shy and secretive by nature, bitterns have frustrated and eluded many a birder for generations. At the slightest alarm, they can appear to vanish into the marshy reeds by freezing with their bills pointing upward, sometimes swaying in order to better resemble the windblown marsh vegetation they inhabit.

Both American and Least bitterns are members of the heron family and breed almost exclusively in freshwater marshland and moist meadows. The two species differ most notably in size and sound: American Bitterns range from 24″–34″ in length, somewhere between a Green and a Great Blue Heron in size, while the smaller Least Bittern measures only 11″–14″. The spring mating call of the male Least Bittern is a soft, subtle coo. American Bitterns, on the other hand, have one of the strangest songs of all our native birds—The male will inflate his esophagus and contort his body wildly to produce a hollow, almost “liquid”, pumping oonk-ka-choonk that can be described, depending on the listener’s age and life experience, like the priming of an old pump or the sound of a distant pile driver.

Bitterns have always been considered rare and local summer residents in Massachusetts and, in earlier years, this status may have had more to do with their secretive and retiring habits than actual numbers. However, today there is no question that bitterns have become scarce (both native species are listed as endangered), the consequence of the widespread draining and filling of wetlands for human development.

Protection of our remaining wetlands and restoration of degraded wetlands is crucial for the future of not just bitterns, but for the future of people in Massachusetts, too. Learn more about our efforts to combat climate change through land protection as well as how you can get involved on our website, and enjoy these five photos of bitterns from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest.

American Bittern © Fred Harwood
American Bittern © Fred Harwood
Least Bittern © Henry Zimberlin
Least Bittern © Henry Zimberlin
American Bittern © Mark Grimason
American Bittern © Mark Grimason
Least Bittern © Liam Waters
Least Bittern © Liam Waters
American Bittern © Jesse Costa
American Bittern © Jesse Costa

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