This is interesting because bitterns have been extinct in Ireland for something over a century. However, it’s not unprecedented. Bitterns still breed in a few places in Britain and, as a result of very strict conservation measures, they seem to be holding their own.
In most years one or two make it over here, but it’s normally in winter and there are no recent breeding records. And occasionally a westerly gale blows in an American bittern, a closely related and rather commoner species.
The bittern is a type of heron, smaller than the familiar grey heron, but still a large bird standing about 75cm high. They are brown flecked with yellow, which is excellent camouflage in a bed of winter reeds. They also have a habit, if they’re alarmed, of stretching their necks and pointing their beaks at the sky. This makes them all but invisible in a reed bed. As a result they’re birds that are more often heard than seen.
The male bittern has a quite extraordinary low-pitched booming call. It’s designed to carry great distances across flat wetlands and it sounds as though it’s much more likely to emanate from a bull than a bird.
There is no doubt that at one time they were common, breeding in every county in Ireland. There were two reasons for their decline and eventual extinction. The first was the 1842 Drainage Act. Bitterns need extensive wetlands with reed beds, patches of open shallow water and lots of coarse fish, particularly eels, to feed on. Up to the middle of the 19th century Ireland had more of this type of habitat than most other European countries and bitterns thrived. Then extensive land drainage started to shrink the reed beds.
The second factor was hunting pressure. Gordon D’Arcy documents this in his excellent book Ireland’s Lost Birds. Bitterns were regarded as a great delicacy, fetching a higher price than the larger and meatier grey heron, and were eagerly sought after by amateur and professional wild-fowlers.
Other birds that were driven to extinction here have managed to recolonise, even without human help. The buzzard and the great spotted woodpecker are examples. Could the bittern come back? It’s not impossible. There still is a small amount of suitable habitat left but the population base in Britain is tiny and this is where any colonisers are likely to come from, so it’s not very likely.
A friend of mine has a 19th century stuffed bittern in a glass case in his study. He is a fine singer and one of his party pieces is The Yellow Bittern, Thomas McDonagh’s wonderful English translation of Cathal Buí Mac Ghiolla Ghunna’s ‘An Bonnan Bui’.
It’s the closest most Irish people are likely to get to this iconic bird.