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Outdoors: Stand like a stick

Marie Travers
American Bittern chicks

When baby bittern birds sense danger, they stretch their little necks and point their bills skyward.

“Don’t just stand there like sticks,” we admonish young actors and singers.

But standing like a stick has survival value for young bitterns.

These birds assume what is called the “bittern stance” when frightened.

Bitterns are marsh birds with streaked buff and brownish feathers that perfectly match the dead foliage of the cattail stands in which they nest.

When sitting on her nest, if threatened, a brooding mother bittern points her beak to the sky and elongates her neck so she looks just like a dead cattail leaf.

American Bittern5
Scott Kinsey
Cornell Ornithology Lab
American Bittern

More remarkable, when a gentle breeze wafts through the wetlands, the bittern sways, her movements perfectly synchronized with the waving vegetation.

It works as well as an invisibility cloak.

When the mother bird goes off to feed, the nestlings are especially vulnerable.

Without the mother to shield them from view, moving nestlings would be obvious to hungry predators.

So when the young birds sense danger, they instinctively stretch their little necks and point their bills skyward. And freeze. Motionless!

They just stand there like sticks - like young performers who are paralyzed by stage fright.

But when baby bitterns are scared stiff, they look just like the sticks of the nest.

So they survive.

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.