Marsh Birds

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 8, 2010

are located in western and northern Missouri. Often, floods or droughts interfere with surveys, but researchers survey as many as they can.

Missouri's Marsh Nesters

Not only are marshes fascinating, they are also important to the survival of many specialized species. Of Missouri's 20 rarest breeding bird species, nearly half nest in marshes. Marsh birds vary in abundance, from the widespread least bittern to the seldom-seen black rail. We've listed some of the birds that inhabit Missouri marshes.

Pied-billed grebe: This nine-inch swimmer has a black bar on its bill. Its courtship call is similar to that of a loon and is often heard at night. Pied-billed grebes build soggy, floating nests anchored on rooted vegetation in water one- to two-feet deep, and they lay up to 10 eggs per clutch. The young sometimes ride on their parents' backs.

In his 1907 book, "A Preliminary Catalog of the Birds in Missouri," Otto Widmann referred to pied-billed grebes as common. They are rarely reported now, but good populations remain at Ted Shanks Conservation Area (Pike County) and Grand Pass Conservation Area (Saline County).

American bittern: Standing two-feet tall, these wading birds tend to hide in reeds, often with their bills pointed skyward to match the vertical, surrounding vegetation. Their call is a low, pumping sound that can carry for a mile. They often nest alone on small islands surrounded by thick, emergent vegetation. They lay four to five eggs.

According to Widmann, American bitterns were once common residents here in the summer, but now less than a dozen individuals are found each year. Ted Shanks Conservation Area is the most dependable site.

Least bittern: Only 11-inches tall, least bitterns are the smallest members of the heron order in Missouri. They readily emit their "coo-coo-coo" calls and are fairly easy to locate wherever they occur. They nest over water in the densest patches of vegetation, raising broods of four to five young twice each year.

Widmann called the least bittern, "A denizen of the reedy lakes and sloughs in the flood plains of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers." Today, about half of the marshes surveyed harbor least bitterns.

Sora: Our most common rail, these seven-inch, charcoal-colored birds are difficult to locate because of the dense marsh vegetation they inhabit. They are easiest to find in May by their chirping call that descends in pitch and volume. The nests they

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