There is a slough pumper that has taken up residence in a marsh near our home, and he is making his presence known. Some of you may have learned them as “thunder pumper,” or “stake driver.” Although many are familiar with the call of the American bittern, I suspect many among us have never seen one. They are quite secretive.
It is interesting to note that John James Audubon in his “Birds of North America” lamented being unable to observe the bird…”It never was my fortune to have a good opportunity of observing all the habits of this very remarkable bird” he wrote. However, he does make reference to Dr. Bachman’s observations of the bird … “their horse croakings, as if their throats were filled with water.”
For those of you unfamiliar with this bird, the American bittern is a relative of herons and egrets. They are a rather short and stocky member of the group with a somewhat pear shaped body, brown and white striped plumage, a yellow bill, and comparatively short yellow or greenish legs. They stand about two feet tall with a four foot wing span.
American bitterns feed on a variety of items including frogs, crayfish, and minnows. If you have the opportunity to observe a bittern you will likely see it slowly and quietly stalk its prey through the cattails or bulrushes.
Bitterns can be well camouflaged among the marsh vegetation and seem to be confident of their protective coloration when it comes to danger. When a person comes upon a bittern, the bird is more apt to stand still than fly away. They will often remain motionless with their neck outstretched and bill pointing straight up. Some have observed them slowly sway, as though they were plants waving in the wind. Continue to advance, however, and they will fly away.
Photo credit: Rick Bohn
Click here to learn more about American bitterns and hear a recording of their call.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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