On June mornings, when I first venture out to weed my flower gardens, I can often hear the call of the American Bittern. It has been described as sounding like a squeaky hand pump. However, not many of us of my senior generation or younger would recognize the sound of any hand pump at all. Suffice to say, it is an unusual guttural call, made by inflating its esophagus, supposedly to defend its territory.
Nevertheless, we are more likely to hear this shy bird, than to see it. The Bittern is a wading bird belonging to the Heron family, which lives and nests among the bulrushes or in thick vegetation at the edges of ponds and swamps. About two feet long, it is attired in brown and beige streaked feathers, has short legs, appears slightly hunched and is equipped with a long dagger-like bill. The sexes are similar.
With this coloration, it is perfectly camouflaged among the vegetation. This blending-in effect is heightened by its hunting stance, remaining completely motionless to capture its prey with a sudden thrust of its bill. Its diet consists mostly of small fish but it also eats insects, frogs, tadpoles, salamanders and garter snakes.
The Bittern nests near shallow water on a platform of cat-tails, lined with fine grass. The female lays 3 to 5 eggs and incubates them for 24-28 days. The young leave the nest in one or two weeks but are fed by regurgitation by the female for up to four weeks.
Winters are spent in Bermuda, Cuba and the Virgin Islands.
The Bittern may live up to eight years. . Its natural enemies are fox and mink but its chief enemy is man, who causes loss of habitat, as swamps and ponds are drained or filled. Its numbers decreased markedly during the 1970’s. Nevertheless, we, in Puslinch, are still privileged to hear the unique call of this bird on spring mornings.
by Marjorie Clark