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American Bittern: Master of Camouflage

Air Date: Week of

An American Bittern in flight. (Photo: Gregg Thompson)

In marshes across North America, if you look carefully and listen for a loud gulping sound on spring mornings you might spot an American Bittern. In this week’s BirdNote®, Mary McCann describes its striped plumage and how its behavior helps it blend with the cattails.



CURWOOD: We stay in a marsh for today’s BirdNote, where Mary McCann introduces us to an iconic shy member of the heron family – with an extraordinary voice.

American Bittern - Master of Camouflage

[American Bittern’s “oonk-a-loonk” calls, repeated]

One fine, spring morning as you walk near a marsh, you are stopped in your tracks by a loud, reverberating call, with a cadence that seems lifted from an old cartoon soundtrack.

[American Bittern’s “oonk-a-loonk” calls, repeated]

An American Bittern freezes and holds its head and neck upward in an attempt to blend in to the marsh grasses. (Photo: Gregg Thompson)

You scan the cattails, but it seems this comical sound has an invisible source.

[American Bittern’s “oonk-a-loonk” calls, repeated]

Then, after a long moment, into an opening in the cattails, walks what looks like a good-sized heron, but with a mottled brown back and bold brown stripes running the length of its very long neck. You are looking at an American Bittern, a member of the heron tribe that spends much of its time in the dense cover of the reeds. Bitterns are masters of camouflage. Not only does their striped plumage perfectly imitate surrounding vegetation, but for further concealment, they freeze, holding their heads and necks upward at an angle that mimics the reeds. I’m Mary McCann.

[American Bittern’s “oonk-a-loonk” calls, repeated]
Written by Bob Sundstrom
Call of the American Bittern provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by S.R. Pantle.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Chris Peterson
© 2005-2018 Tune In to Nature.org April 2018 for LOE Narrator: Mary McCann




This story about the American Bittern on the BirdNote® website

Learn more about the American Bittern: Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds


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