bit'-ern (qippodh; Latin Botaurus stellaris; Greek echinos):

A nocturnal member of the heron family, frequenting swamps and marshy places. Its Hebrew name means a creature of waste and desert places. The bittern is the most individual branch of the heron (ardeidae) family on account of being partially a bird of night. There are observable differences from the heron in proportion, and it differs widely in coloration. It is one of the birds of most ancient history, and as far back as records extend is known to have inhabited Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and America. The African bird that Bible historians were familiar with was 2 1/2 ft. in length. It had a 4-inch bill, bright eyes and plumage of buff and chestnut, mottled with black. It lived around swamps and marshes, hunting mostly at night, and its food was much the same as that of all members of the heron family, frogs being its staple article of diet. Its meat has not the fishy taste of most members of the heron family, and in former times wa s considered a great delicacy of food. In the days of falconry it was protected in England because of the sport afforded in hunting it. Aristotle mentions that previous to his time the bittern was called oknos, which name indicates "an idle disposition." It was probably bestowed by people who found the bird hiding in swamps during the daytime, and saw that it would almost allow itself to be stepped upon before it would fly. They did not understand that it fed and mated at night. Pliny wrote of it as a bird that "bellowed like oxen," for which reason it was called Taurus. Other medieval writers called it botaurus, from which our term "bittern" is derived. There seems to be much confusion as to the early form of the name; but all authorities agree that it was bestowed on the bird on account of its voice. Turner states that in 1544 the British called it "miredromble," and "botley bump," from its voice. Rolland says the French called it, Boeuf d'eau. In later days "bog-bull," "stake-driver" and "thunder-pumper" have attached themselves to it as terms fitly descriptive of its voice. Nuttall says its cry is "like the interrupted bellowing of a bull, but hollower and louder, and is heard at a mile's distance, as if issuing from some formidable being that resided at the bottom of the waters." Tristram says, "Its strange booming note, disturbing the stillness of night, gives an idea of desolation which nothing but the wail of a hyena can equal." Thoreau thought its voice like the stroke of an ax on the head of a deeply driven stake. In ancient times it was believed the bird thrust its sharp beak into a reed to produce this sound. Later it was supposed to be made by pushing the bill into muck and water while it cried. Now the membrane by which the sound is produced has been located in the lungs of the bird. In all time it has been the voice that attracted attention to the bittern, and it was solely upon the ground of its vocal attainments that it entered the Bible. There are three references, all of which originated in its cry. Isaiah in prophesying the destruction of Babylon (Isaiah 14:23 in the King James Version) wrote: "I will also make it a possession for the bittern, and pools of water"; in other words he would make of it a desolate and lonely swamp. Again in Isaiah 34:11 in the King James Version, in pronouncing judgment against Idumaea, he wrote, "But the cormorant and the bittern shall possess it." In the Revised Version (British and American), "cormorant" and "bittern" are changed to "pelican" and "porcupine." The change from the cormorant to pelican makes less difference, as both are water birds, and the Hebrew shalakh, which means "a plunging bird," would apply equally to either of them. If they were used to bear out the idea that they would fill the ruins with terrifying sound, then it is well to remember that the cormorant had something of a voice, while the pelican is notoriously the most silent of birds. The change from bittern to porcupine is one with which no ornithologist would agree. About 620 BC, the prophet Zephaniah (Zephaniah 2:14) clearly indicates this bird:

"And herds shall lie down in the midst of her, all the beasts of the nations: both the pelican and the porcupine shall lodge in the capitals thereof; their voice shall sing in the windows; desolation shall be in the thresholds: for he hath laid bare the cedar work." This should forever settle the question raised by some modern commentators as to whether a bird or beast is intended by the word qippodh. In some instances it seems to have been confounded with qunfudh, the hedgehog or porcupine. No natural historian ever would agree to this, because these animals are not at home in the conditions that were known to exist here. Even granting that Nineveh was to be made dry, it must be remembered that the marshes of the Tigris lay very close, and the bird is of night, with a voice easily carrying over a mile. Also it was to "sing" and to "lodge" on the "upper lintels" which were the top timbers of the doors and windows. These formed just the location a bittern would probably perch upon when it left its marshy home and went booming through the night in search of a mate. It was without doubt the love song of the bittern that Isaiah and Zephaniah used in completing prophecies of desolation and horror, because with the exception of mating time it is a very quiet bird. For these reasons the change from bittern to porcupine in the Revised Version (British and American), of the paragraph quoted, is a great mistake, as is also that of cormorant to pelican.

Gene Stratton-Porter

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'BITTERN'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.