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XVII

THE BITTERN

IT was a great day for me when I first heard the so-called booming of the bittern. For more than ten years I had devoted the principal part of my spare hours to the study of birds, but though I had taken many an evening walk near the most promising meadows in my neighbor hood, I could never hear those mysterious pump ing or stake-driving noises of which I had read with so much interest, especially in the writings of Thoreau.

The truth was, as I have since assured myself, that this representative of the heron family was not a resident within the limits of my everyday rambles, none of the meadows thereabout being extensive and secluded enough to suit his whim.

There came a day, however, when with a friend I made an afternoon excursion to Way land, Massachusetts, on purpose to form the stake-driver’s acquaintance. We walked up the railway track across the river toward Sudbury, and were hardly seated on the edge of the meadow, facing the beautiful Nobscot Hill, be fore my comrade said, “Hark! There he is!”

Yes, that certainly was the very sound — an old-fashioned wooden pump at work in the meadow.

We listened intently for perhaps half a dozen times; then I proposed going further up the track to get the notes at shorter range, and possibly — who could tell what unheard-of thing might happen? — to obtain a sight of the bird. We advanced cautiously, though as we were on the track, six feet or more above the level of the meadow, there was no chance of concealment, and the bittern went on with his performance.

Meanwhile we maintained a sharp lookout, and presently I descried a narrow brown object stand ing upright amidst the grass — a stick, perhaps. I lifted my opera-glass and spoke quickly to my friend: “I see him!”

“Where?” he asked; and when I lowered my glass and gave him the bird’s bearings as related to the remains of an old hayrick not far off, he said, “Why, I saw that, but took it for a stick.”

“Yes, but see the eye,” I answered.

Within half a minute the bird suddenly threw his head forward and commenced pumping.

This was good luck indeed, — that I should surprise my very first bittern in his famous act, a thing which better men than I, after years of familiarity with the bird, had never once succeeded in accomplishing. Who says that Fortune does not sometimes favor the fresh hand?

The fellow repeated the operation three times, and between whiles moved stealthily through the grass toward the leavings of the haycock before mentioned.

When he reached the hay, we held our breath. Would he actually mount it? Yes, that was undoubtedly his intention; but he meant to do it in such a way that no mortal eye should see him. All the time glancing furtively to left and right, as if the grass were full of enemies, he put one foot before the other with almost inconceivable slowness, — as the hour hand turns on the clock’s face. It was an admirable display of an art which this race of frog, mouse, and insect catchers has cultivated for untold generations — an art on which its livelihood depends, the art of invisible motion.

There was no resisting the ludicrousness of his manner. He was in full view, but so long as he kept still he seemed to think himself quite safe from detection. Like the hand of the clock, however, if he was slow he was sure, and in time he was fairly out of the grass, standing in plain sight upon his hay platform.

Once in position he fell to pumping in earnest, and kept it up for more than an hour, while two enthusiasts sat upon the railway embankment, twelve or thirteen rods distant, with opera-glasses and note-books, scrutinizing his every motion, and felicitating themselves again and again on seeing thus plainly what so few had ever seen at all. What would Thoreau have given for such an opportunity?

“The stake-driver is at it in his favorite meadow,” he writes in his journal, in 1852. “I followed the sound, and at last got within two rods, it seeming always to recede, and drawing you, like a will-o’-the-wisp, farther away into the meadows. When thus near, I heard some lower sounds at the beginning like striking on a stump or a stake, a dry, hard sound, and then followed the gurgling, pumping notes fit to come from a meadow.

“This was just within the blueberry and other bushes, and when the bird flew up, alarmed, I went to the place, but could see no water, which makes me doubt if water is necessary to it in making the sound. Perhaps it thrusts its bill so deep as to reach water where it is dry on the surface.”

This notion that water is employed in the production of the bittern’s notes has been generally entertained. The notes themselves are of a character to suggest such an hypothesis, and at least one witness has borne circumstantial testimony to its truth. In Thoreau’s essay on the “Natural History of Massachusetts,” he says:

 “On one occasion, the bird has been seen by one of my neighbors to thrust its bill into the water, and suck up as much as it could hold; then, raising its head, it pumped it out again with four or five heaves of the neck, throwing it two or three feet, and making the sound each time.”

Similar statements have been made as to the corresponding notes of the European bittern. None of our systematic writers upon American ornithology have ever witnessed the performance, as far as appears, and being too honest to draw upon their imaginations, they have left the matter a mystery. Now, on this auspicious May after noon, if we learned nothing else, we could at all events make quite sure whether or not the bittern did really spout water from his beak.

My readers will have guessed already that our bird, at least, did nothing of the sort. His bill was never within reach of water. The operation is a queer one, hard to describe.

The bittern has been standing motionless, per haps in the humpbacked attitude in which the artists, following Audubon’s plate, have commonly represented him; or quite as likely, he has been making a stick or a soldier of himself, standing bolt upright at full stretch, his long neck and bill pointed straight at the zenith.

Suddenly he lowers his head, and instantly raises it again and throws it forward with a quick, convulsive jerk. This movement is at tended by an opening and shutting of the bill, which in turn is accompanied by a sound which has been well compared to a violent hiccough. The hiccough — with which, I think, the click of the big mandibles may sometimes be heard — is repeated a few times, each time a little louder than before; and then succeed the real pumping or stake-driving noises.

These are in sets of three syllables each, of which the first syllable is the longest, and some what separated from the others. The accent is strongly upon the middle syllable, and the whole, as oftenest heard, is an exact reproduction of the sound of a wooden pump, as I have already said, the voice having that peculiar hollow quality which is produced, not by the flow of the water, but by the suction of the air in the tube when the pump begins to work.

But the looker-on is likely to be quite as much impressed by what he sees as by what he hears. During the whole performance, but especially during the latter part of it, the bird is engaged in the most violent contortions, suggestive of nothing but a patient suffering from uncontrollable nausea. Moreover, as soon as the preliminary hiccoughs begin, the lower throat or breast is seen to be swelling; the dilatation grows larger and larger till the pumping is well under way, and so far as my companion and I could detect, does not subside in the least until the noises have ceased altogether.

How are the unique, outlandish notes produced? I cannot profess to know. Our opinion was that the bird swallowed air into his gullet, gulping it down with each snap of the beak. To all appearance it was necessary for him to inflate the crop in this way before he could pump, or boom. As to how much of the grand booming was connected with the swallowing of the air, and how much, if any, with the expulsion of it, my friend and I did not agree, and of course neither of us could do more than guess.

I made some experiments afterwards, by way of imitating the noises; and these experiments, together with the fact that the grand booming seemed to be really nothing more than a development of the preliminary hiccoughs, and the fur ther fact that the swelling of the breast did not go down gradually during the course of the performance, but suddenly at the close, — all these incline me to believe that the notes are mainly if not entirely caused by the inhalation or swallow ing of the air; and I am somewhat strengthened in this opinion by perceiving that when a man takes air into his stomach the act is attended by a sound not altogether unlike the bittern’s note in quality, while the expulsion of it gives rise to noises of an entirely dissimilar character.

That the sounds in question were not made entirely by any ordinary action of the vocal organs was the decided opinion of both my friend and myself.

As I have said, we watched the performance for more than an hour. We were sitting squarely upon the track, and once were compelled to get up to let a train pass; but the bittern evidently paid no attention to matters on the railway, being well used to thunder in that direction, and stood his ground without wincing.

When he had pumped long enough, — and the operation surely looked like pretty hard work, — he suddenly took wing and flew a little distance down the meadow. The moment he dropped into the grass he pumped, and on making another flight he again pumped immediately upon coming to the ground. This trick, which surprised me not a little in view of the severe exertion required, is perhaps akin to the habit of smaller birds, who in seasons of excitement will very often break into song at the moment of striking a perch.

As we came down the track on our way back to the station, three bitterns were in the air at once, while a fourth was booming on the opposite side of the road. One of the flying birds persistently dangled his legs instead of drawing them up in the usual fashion and letting the feet stick out behind, parallel with the tail. Probably he was “showing off,” as is the custom of many birds during the season of mating.

Our bird across the road, by the bye, was not pumping, but driving a stake. The middle syllable was truly a mighty whack with a mallet on the head of a post, so that I could easily enough credit Mr. Samuels’s statement that he once followed the sound for half a mile, expecting to find a farmer setting a fence.

In the midst of the hurly-burly we saw a boy coming toward us on the track.

“Let’s ask him about it,” said my companion.

So, with an air of inquisitive ignorance, he stopped the fellow, and inquired, “Do you know what it is we hear making that curious noise off there in the meadow?”

The boy evidently took us for a pair of ignoramuses from the city.

I guess it’s a frog,” he answered. But when the sounds were repeated he shook his head and confessed honestly that he didn’t know what made them.

It was too bad, I thought, that he did not stick to his frog theory. It would have made so much better a story! He appeared to feel no curiosity about the matter, and we allowed him to pass on unenlightened.

Not all Wayland people are thus poorly in formed, however, and we shortly learned, to our considerable satisfaction, that they have a most felicitous local name for the bird. They call him “plum-pudd’n’,” which is exactly what he himself says, only that his u is in both words somewhat long, like the vowel in “full.” To get the true effect of the words they should be spoken with the lips nearly closed, and in a deep voice.

A few days after this excursion I found a bit tern in a large wet meadow somewhat nearer home. At the nearest he was a long way off, and as I went farther and farther away from him, I remarked the very unexpected fact that the last syllable to be lost was not the second, which bears so sharp an accent, but the long first syllable. It seemed contrary to reason, but such was unquestionably the truth, and later experiments confirmed it.

This was in the spring of 1888. In May of the next year, if all went well, we would see the show again. So we said to each other; but a veteran ornithologist remarked that we should probably be a good many years older before we had another such piece of good fortune.

It is a fact familiar to all naturalists, however, that when you have once found a new plant, or a new bird, or a new nest, the experience is likely to be soon repeated. You may have spent a dozen years in a vain search, but now, for some reason, the difficult has all at once become easy, and almost before you can believe your eyes the rarity has grown to be a drug in the market. Something like this proved to be true of the bittern’s boom.

On the afternoon of the 2d of May, 1889, I went to one of my favorite resorts, a large cat tail swamp surrounded by woods. My particular errand was to see whether the least bittern had arrived, — a much smaller, and in this part of the country, at least, a much less common bird than his relative of whose vocal accomplish ments I am here treating.

I threw myself down upon the cliff overhanging the edge of the swamp, to listen for the desired coo-coo-coo-coo, and had barely made my self comfortable when I heard the plum-pudd’n’ of the bittern himself, proceeding, as it seemed, from the reeds directly at my feet. Further listening satisfied me that the fellow was not far from the end of a rocky peninsula which juts into the swamp just at this point.

I slipped down the cliff as quietly as possible, picked my way across the narrow neck leading to the main peninsula, and by keeping behind rocks and trees managed to reach the very tip without disturbing the bird. Here I posted myself among the thick trees, and awaited a repetition of the boom. It was not long in coming, and plainly proceeded from a bunch of flags just across a little stretch of clear water.

I looked and looked, while the bittern continued to pump at rather protracted intervals; but I could see nothing whatever, till presto! there the creature stood in plain sight.

Whether he had moved into view, or had all the time been visible, I cannot tell. He soon pumped again, and then again, for perhaps six times. Then he stalked away out of sight, and I heard nothing more. He was much nearer than last year’s bird had been, but was still a pumper, not a stake-driver, and his action was in all respects the same as I had before witnessed.

There had been no bittern in this swamp the season previous, nor did any breed here this summer. I visited the place too often for him to have escaped my notice, had he been present. This bird, then, was a migrant, and his booming was of interest as showing that the bittern, like the song-birds, does not wait to get into summer quarters before beginning to rehearse his love music.

Two days after this my companion of the year before went with me again to Wayland, and, not to prolong a long story, we sat again upon the railway and watched a bittern pump for more than an hour. This time, to be sure, he was partially concealed by the grass, besides being farther away than we could have wished.

It was curious, and illustrated strikingly the utility of the bird’s habit of standing motionless, that my friend, who is certainly as sharp-eyed an observer as I have ever known, was once more completely taken in. As luck would have it, I caught sight of the bird first, and when I pointed him out to the other man he replied, “Why, of course I saw that, but it never occurred to me but that it was a stake.”

We returned from this excursion fairly well convinced that in the early part of the season, while the grass is still short, one may hope to see a bittern pump almost any day, if he will go to a suitable meadow which has a railroad running through it. The track answers a double purpose: it gives the observer an outlook, such as cannot be obtained from a boat, and further more, the birds are quite unsuspicious of things on the track, while the presence of a man in the grass or on the river would almost inevitably attract their attention.


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