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BITTERN, a genus of wading birds, belonging to the family Ardeidae, comprising several species closely allied to the herons, from which they differ chiefly in their shorter neck, the back of which is covered with down, and the front with long feathers, which can be raised at pleasure. They are solitary birds, frequenting countries possessing extensive swamps and marshy grounds, remaining at rest by day, concealed among the reeds and bushes of their haunts, and seeking their food, which consists of fish, reptiles, insects and small quadrupeds, in the twilight. The common bittern (Botaurus stellaris) is nearly as large as the heron, and is widely distributed over the eastern hemisphere. Formerly it was common in Britain, but extensive drainage and persecution have greatly dimished its numbers and it is now only an uncertain visitor. Not a winter passes without its appearing in some numbers, when its uncommon aspect, its large size, and beautifully pencilled plumage cause it to be regarded as a great prize by the lucky gun-bearer to whom it falls a victim. Its value as a delicacy for the table, once so highly esteemed, has long vanished. The old fable of this bird inserting its beak into a reed or plunging it into the ground, and so causing the booming sound with which its name will always be associated, is also exploded, and nowadays indeed so few people in Britain have ever heard its loud and awful voice, which seems to be uttered only in the breeding-season, and is therefore unknown in a country where it no longer breeds, that incredulity as to its booming at all has in some quarters succeeded the old belief in this as in other reputed peculiarities of the species. The bittern in the days of falconry was strictly preserved, and afforded excellent sport. It sits crouching on the ground during the day, with its bill pointing in the air, a position from which it is not easily roused, and even when it takes wing, its flight is neither swift nor long sustained. When wounded it requires to be approached with caution, as it will then attack either man or dog with its long sharp bill and its acute claws. It builds a rude nest among the reeds and flags, out of materials which surround it, and the female lays four or five eggs of a brownish olive. During the breeding season it utters a booming noise, from which it probably derives its generic name, Botaurus, and which has made it in many places an object of superstitious dread. Its plumage for the most part is of a pale buff colour, rayed and speckled with black and reddish brown. The American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) is somewhat smaller than the European species, and is found throughout the central and southern portions of North America. It also occurs in Britain as an occasional straggler. It is distinguishable by its uniform greyish-brown primaries, which want the tawny bars that characterize B. stellaris. Both species are good eating.


Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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