Curator's Choice: Professor Andrew Balmford on the near-mystical Great Bittern reed bird

By Professor Andrew Balmford | 15 March 2013

Curator's Choice: Professor Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science in the Department of Zoology at the University of College, on the Great Bittern (Botaurus stellaris)...

A photo of a bird among reeds with brown feathers, a green face and a long thin beak
© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013
“One of my favourite creatures in the Museum is the Great Bittern.

These near-mystical reed-dwelling birds were common across the once-vast fenlands and beyond, the extraordinarily loud booming calls of the males giving rise to more than 20 colloquial names – Bull of the Bog, the Mire Drum, and the Bog-Blutter and more.

In the dense, shadowy world of a reedbed, their extraordinary camouflage and secretive nature makes them almost impossible to spot – and by the late 1990s, centuries of drainage and habitat disturbance, combined with the loss of coastal reedbeds to the sea, meant there were only a dozen or so booming males left across the whole of the UK.

Just up the road in Ely, concerns about losing one of their last refuges to a proposed marina development spurred an effective response by local people which saved the site for dozens of other species as well.

Nationwide, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – one of the University’s partners in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative – has spearheaded a major programme to create new reedbeds, carefully tailored to the needs of bitterns. Remarkably, there are now more than 100 booming males across the country.

There are more bitterns in Cambridgeshire now than there have been for decades – for me, it’s a resonant illustration of how conservation can succeed.”

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