© 2024 Marfa Public Radio
A 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

Lobby Hours: Monday - Friday 10 AM to Noon & 1 PM to 4 PM
For general inquiries: (432) 729-4578
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
We're currently experiencing technical problems with our KOJP signal, which serves the Presidio area. We regret the inconvenience and hope to be back on the air soon.

American Bittern


In the early 1950s the late Frances Williams began writing essays for the Midland Naturalist newsletter, "The Phalarope." She edited the newsletter for 35 years, as well as becoming one of the founding members of the Texas Ornithological Society and of it's Bird Records Committee.

From Marfa Public Radio, in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas, this is Nature Notes. Hello, I'm Dallas Baxter.

Frances Williams collated the Southern Great Plains report for the Audubon Society's publication "American Birds" for 25 years, and was the first to publish research on a classic West Texas bird, the Cassin's sparrow, in Arthur Bent's encyclopedic "Life Histories of American Birds." She set the standard for nature writing in avocational local nature club newsletters. What follows is one of her essays, slightly edited.

"When sloshing through the mud around anywhere wet with cattails and sedges, be on lookout for a large, brown and white, streaked bird flying away. Dark flight feathers show briefly as the bird flaps on stiff wings, and it usually will immediately drop into the closest jungle of vegetation. That's enough to identify it as an American Bittern for experienced birders.

Birders consider themselves lucky to get even a brief glance. Although the American Bittern is by no means a rare bird, it's almost unknown to many birders. The bird is not only secretive and solitary in its habits, it's also the possessor of protective coloration so perfect that one can look directly at the bird and not see it. It's famous for its protective pose in which it stands perfectly still, neck stretched and bill pointed skyward, feathers pressed tight against its body and stripes blending with the reeds or cattails of its surroundings.

American Bitterns are almost as famous for their weird calls as they are for their classic pose. Some compare the call to a sound made by an old, wooden hand pump. Others say it sounds like a stake being hammered into mud. Colloquial names for the bird are "thunder pumper" and "stake driver."

Bitterns are members of the heron family, although their secretive habits make one associate them with the rails rather than the conspicuous, gregarious herons. Like other herons, American Bitterns have plumes. The plumes, visible only during courtship, are located between the shoulders and are white. When erected, the plumes resemble a white ruff across the back of the bird.

American Bitterns nest in suitable habitat throughout the United States and Canada. The nest is usually built in a marsh, the eggs being laid on a platform built of dead vegetation. Occasionally the nest is built in tall grass some distance from water. As Bitterns go to and from their nests, they climb on the reeds and break them down, eventually forming a path that they follow each time they approach or leave the nest.

Food of Bitterns consists of snakes, mice, fish, insects and frogs. They hunt by standing motionless, pretending to be reeds, until an unwary frog comes by. Then a swift thrust of a powerful bill and supper is caught. Occasionally they stalk slowly through the water, head low and neck outstretched, peering into the water for a possible meal."

Years since Williams wrote those words, Bitterns are still part of bird life here in West Texas, most often seen in the Trans-Pecos and Llano Estacado in the winter in the proper habitat. One of the cleverest behaviors of this bird is to not only stand with it's bill pointed to the sky, as Williams described, but to actually sway in the breeze at the same speed as the cattails and reeds around it.

Nature Notes is sponsored by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by KRTS Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Burr Williams of the  Sibley Nature Center.

Latest Episodes: