American Bittern: Thunder-Pumper

This bird's deep, resonant calls have earned it unique and apt nicknames.

This story comes to you through a partnership between Audubon and BirdNote, a show that airs daily on public radio stations nationwide.

[audioplayer:77771|align:left|caption:Calls of the American bittern.]

You’re listening to one of the most peculiar and memorable of all North American bird voices. This bird’s deep, resonant calls have earned it the nicknames “thunder-pumper” and “stake-driver.”

Its name in the bird book? American bittern. Medium-sized cousins of herons, American bitterns spend most of their time in dense marshes, out of view. In fact, bitterns are so well camouflaged in shades of brown, and so stealthy, that they can be hard to spot even when out in the open. Their “ungodly” calls, most often heard during the breeding season, led to an Old Testament connection of bitterns with evil and desolation. As recently as 1786, a group of Connecticut men met to rid nearby marshes of the accursed bittern. 

Fortunately, the American bittern has outlived the folklore about its evil nature. Bitterns nest in marshes throughout much of Canada, and they winter along both US coasts south into Central America. But bitterns are in serious trouble as breeding birds in the US, because much of the extensive, shallow marshland they once bred in has been drained or degraded by pesticides and silt.

Expansive and healthy freshwater marshes are crucial to the bittern’s continued welfare, and to a natural world that includes its remarkable voice.

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
© 2012 Tune In to     December 2012     Narrator: Michael Stein