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A bittern. A wading-bird of Europe, related to the herons, called Botaurus bulgaris. It has long legs and neck, and stalks among reeds and sedge, feeding upon fish. It makes a singular noise, called by Dryden bumping, and by Goldsmith booming. Other species also of the genus are called bittern. — Webster, 1882

thunder-pumpI finished reading Little Town on the Prairie for the eleventy-seventh time yesterday, and I made note of a couple of things that I honestly didn’t remember from other readings. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mention of “thunder-pumps” was one of them: see Chapter 5, “Working in Town.”

The thunderpump or thunder-pump is the American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), an endangered species of the heron family. They inhabit wet, marshy areas – like the Big Slough – and their song is described as a booming “ooooom-a-lunk” that carries for long distances.

You can Google to hear the call of the American Bittern. Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks has a wav file linked to their online field guide. After listening to the call, I don’t think I’ve ever heard one at the Big Slough all the times I’ve been there (and all the nights I’ve spent on the Ingalls homestead). But there are recently-taken photos online of bitterns in Brookings, so hopefully they’re still hanging out in De Smet as well.

thunder-pumps (LTP 5)