American Bittern

Streaks of light slipped across the eastern sky announcing the dawning of another beautiful spring day. Mist rose from the marsh. Somewhere in the distance, a woodpecker pounded mightily on a dead tree. Around the marsh, frogs were croaking, toads were singing, and peepers were peeping. Geese honked, ducks flapped, an eagle soared, and a snake slithered. A secretive American Bittern slipped through the reeds and cattails looking for a place to make her nest. Suddenly her sharp eyes caught a movement. A fox, looking for one last meal after a long night of hunting, was sneaking along the marshes edge in her direction, not too far away. What should she do? She could slip out and fly. She could fight; her sharp bill and accurate aim were a powerful combination. She chose neither option. She froze. She stood still with her bill pointed upward. Among the reeds, the streaks of brown feathers on her neck and upper body made excellent camouflage. The fox looked her direction. A breeze began to blow gently. The reeds began to rustle and move, and the bittern began to sway with the reeds. Her whole body, from the tip of her beak to her feet, moved with the reeds. The fox stuck his nose in the air. Whiskers twitched as he tested the breezes. The fox was upwind of the bittern so he had no clue of her presence. Soon he turned and continued on his way. Such is the life of a bittern—secretive and stealthy, usually hidden in bogs, marshes, or tall meadow grass. Seldom does the bird sit in a tree. Besides “freezing” to keep from being eaten, the bittern also “freezes” so it can eat. Instead of pointing the beak upward, however, the beak is kept level. Its keen eyes watch for fish, frogs, insects, small snakes, mice, salamanders, crayfish, and small eels. When prey approaches, the bittern slowly stretches out its neck and aims. With a sudden dart downward, it seizes the meal in its bill. Oftentimes, in the process of eating, the bird’s head and neck feathers become slimy and dirty. The bittern will spend considerable time cleaning his plumage. To do this, soiled feathers are rubbed against special feathers located beside the breast. These feathers contain powder down. This powder, when rubbed onto slimy, dirty feathers, absorbs the moisture and dries out. As it dries, it flakes off. The middle toenail of the bittern has a fine-toothed “comb” on the bottom of it. This “comb” is used to further remove dried powder from the feathers. After the cleaning process, the bittern uses its beak to transfer oil from the gland under the tail to the cleaned areas. Several hours pass as the bittern meticulously cleans itself. What was that? The reeds were moving in the bog. The bittern’s neck, almost imperceptibly eased forward. Attention was riveted down in the water. Quick as a blink, a sharp jab of the beak, and another slimy eel was twisting around, trying to free itself from the powerful grasp that held it. What a life! Bittern Bits * Bitterns do not eat vegetation but will eat almost any kind of animal, insect, or fish that comes within reach, provided it is small enough to be eaten whole. * Young are fed by grasping hold of the mother’s beak. This triggers a stimulus that causes the mother to regurgitate food into the open mouth of the young bird. * When enemies such as a raccoon or hawk threaten the young, the bittern may bristle her feathers until she looks twice her size. If forced to fight, she will aim her bill for the eyes of a predator in an effort to disable it. * As a precaution to not reveal the location of her nest, the bittern has two walkways; one she uses to walk to it, another she uses when she leaves. * The nest is built in reeds and is usually only several inches above the water. * The mating call of the male bittern resembles the sound of a stake being driven into the ground. The 3-syllable call is often written as “pump-er-lunk.” The last syllable is the loudest. The call carries well and can be heard from long distances, half a mile or more. * The bittern has many names: Bog-bull, meadow hen, pond guinea, thunder pumper, stake-driver, sky-gazer, and many more. “Thou hast created all things, and for Thy pleasure they are and were created.” Revelation 4:11

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