Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 14, 2009

A Bitter Bird

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:38 pm

There are times when wild animals really don’t want our help. Sometimes they just need to work things out on their own and without our opposably-thumbed assistance, thank you.  Take the recent case of an American Bittern recently “recovered” in the Pointe Mouillee State Game Area marsh. Two birders encountered this bird last week. The sight of an American Bittern is always a welcome sight – especially given the fact that these secretive marsh birds are becoming rare (listed as a “special concern species” in Michigan). Add to this reality the additional fact that they are very hard to see even when standing in front of you. Because of their cryptic coloration and their preference for slinking through the shadowy narrow spaces under the cover of cattails and rushes, they can be downright ghost-like.  On top of all this, the find was notable because of timing. Bitterns, like most members of the heron family, migrate south for the winter. Some individuals venture all the way to the sunny climes of Central America. Mid Novembertime is well past the time to expect a lingering Bittern.

This Bittern find was marred only by the fact that the bird was apparently injured. It was stumbling though the grass and suffering with an “apparently broken right wing.”  The birders were able to get hold of it (getting the proverbial bird in hand away from the bush) and secure a contact number for a re-habilitator.  I had nothing to do with the details of this particular affair other than having the opportunity to give the creature a quick visual inspection. Frankly, I had never seen one this close and my “inspection” amounted to little more than taking a few detail pictures (see above and here).  Since healthy bitterns do not, as far as I know, willingly allow people – even birders – to simply pick them up I assumed the thing had to be  “hurt.” The “injured right wing” was held tightly by the birder and was not visible.  The bittern exhibited  no signs of pain or discomfort, but did look…well, indignant at best or pissed at worse. Hurt things need help, however. The bird was safely in the hands of a wildlife rehabilitator, some 40 miles distant, by nightfall.

A few days later, contact was made with the re-haber – a Ypsilanti area resident named Carol – to see how her fragile charge was doing. She responded by saying that the bird was doing very well and was, in fact, without injury. It had neither a broken wing or leg or broken anything, she said. There was no visible sign of trauma what-so-ever. It simply stood in the corner, flared out his wings, and lunged at her with deadly intentions every time she approached. Apparently the Bittern had either ingested some bad minnows or perhaps eaten a fermented frog. Whatever the case, it had been only temporarily “out of it” and the issue was resolved by a good healthy “dump.” It was perfectly healthy and ready to kill anyone attempting to “help” it again.

The decision was made to get the poor thing back to Mouillee as quickly as possible. I picked it up, neatly re-boxed into a cat-carrier(see here), and delivered the bitter bird to a nice cat-tailed spot at the game area.  The box shuffled only slightly during the entire return trip – the occupant making quick moves whenever my shadow passed over one of the ventilation holes. A pair of very intense eyes greeted me when I cracked open the box lid (see above). American Bitterns are known for their terrific cattail pose in which they point their beak straight up and align their striped features with the surrounding vegetation. They even have been known to enhance this act by rocking gently back and forth like the wind blown plants about them. But, bitterns can also assume a terrific threat pose if frightened or ticked. This bird was in classic tick mode with flared head feathers and opened wings (perfectly healthy wings I might add). The beak was raised and both eyes were focused forward at a single point in the universe – me.

Like a frightening jack-in-the-box, the bittern suddenly lunged forward out of the box while delivering a dagger attack at the position where I was (as in formally) standing (see above). It then retreated immediately and prepped for the next jab. It would be professional of me to say that I was prepared for such an explosive action but I was not professional. You’ll note the blurred action in the photo as I reeled backwards. Only via a very careful and remote manipulation by a cattail stalk was I able to gingerly open the second half of the lid enough to convince the flustered soul to finally leave his confines. It jumped the box and stalked off into the marsh. After one angry look back, it lowered it’s neck and melted into one of those shadowy narrow spaces between the cattails.

This was not one of those magic goodbye moments that you see in the movies. Good intentions mean absolutely nothing to a marsh bird.


  1. Interesting post. It reminded me of a story a rehabber friend told me about her getting called to get a GH heron who was thought to have a head injury and was pretty out of it..that was until she tried to get the bird and it suddenly came around and started to jab…She wasn’t injured nor was the bird….

    Regarding the upright pose..I have seen that here on our pond in green herons and I didn’t know why but I will assume it is the same behavior.

    Comment by ramblingwoods — November 15, 2009 @ 12:34 am

  2. A rehabber friend of mine had a juvenile bittern for a while this summer. Goofy-looking things. I suspect, however, that her’s was significantly less antisocial than yours!

    Comment by Ellen — November 16, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

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