- 23.6–33.5 in
- 36.2 in
- 13.1–17.6 oz
- Larger than a Green Heron; Smaller than a Great Blue Heron.
- Butor d'Amérique (French)
- Torcomón, Avetoro lentiginoso (Spanish)
- American Bitterns are heard more often than seen. Their booming, clacking, gulping calls have earned them some colorful nicknames, including "stake-driver," "thunder-pumper," "water-belcher," and "mire-drum."
- When field scientists want to trap American Bitterns for study, they take advantage of the males' aggressive territoriality. Knowing that the birds will respond to other males' calls from as far as 1,600 feet away, or to the image of another male, the researchers use recorded calls and mirrors to draw the birds in.
- The American Bittern's yellow eyes can focus downward, giving the bird's face a comically startled, cross-eyed appearance. This visual orientation presumably enhances the bird's ability to spot and capture prey. The eyes turn orange during breeding season.
- The oldest recorded American Bittern was over 8 years 4 months old, when it was found in Ontario where it had been banded as an adult 8 years previously.
American Bitterns breed mainly in freshwater marshes with tall vegetation. You can find them in wetlands of many sizes and kinds, typically less densely vegetated and shallower than wetlands used by the Least Bittern. In winter they move to areas where water bodies don't freeze, especially near the coast, where they occasionally use brackish marshes. Managed wetlands such as wildlife refuges seem to be important for wintering American Bitterns. Wintering birds may also forage in dry grasslands and other terrestrial habitats.
American Bitterns eat insects, crustaceans, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. Their most common insect prey include water striders, giant water bugs, water beetles, water scorpions, grasshoppers, and especially dragonflies, which the birds sometimes manage to capture in midair. Frequently consumed fish include eels, catfish, pickerel, sunfish, suckers, perch, killifish, and sticklebacks. Rayfish, crabs, frogs, tadpoles, salamanders, garter snakes, water snakes, and meadow voles round out the diet. American Bitterns usually forage in dim light, at shorelines and the fringes of vegetated areas. A foraging bird may sway its neck, perhaps to see past glare from the surface of shallow water, or to warm up its muscles for a quick strike. A characteristic strategy is to stand stock-still with bill held horizontal, gradually aiming the bill downward with nearly imperceptible movements—until, with a sudden darting motion, the bittern seizes the prey in its bill, bites or shakes it to death, and swallows it head first. Indigestible parts of prey animals are regurgitated as pellets.
- Clutch Size
- 2–7 eggs
- Number of Broods
- 1 broods
- Egg Length
- 1.9 in
- Egg Width
- 1.5 in
- Incubation Period
- 24–28 days
- Nestling Period
- 7–14 days
- Egg Description
- Beige-brown to olive; unmarked.
- Condition at Hatching
- Helpless, covered with yellow-green down; pinkish-tan black-tipped bill; pink mouth, light olive eyes.
The female American Bittern gathers materials, builds the nest, incubates eggs, broods, and feeds chicks with no apparent assistance from the male. She builds a mound or platform about 3.5 to 8 inches above the water’s surface, using dead, dry reeds, sedges, cattails, or other vegetation, and lines the nest with fine grasses. The nest’s outside diameter ranges from about 10 to 15 inches.
American Bitterns usually build their nests among thick stands of cattails, bulrushes, and sedges that grow out of shallow water. Less commonly, they nest on dry ground, in grassland areas dense with tall herbaceous plants. Limited research suggests that the females choose the nest sites.
American Bitterns are solitary foragers, standing motionless or walking slowly with outspread toes in search of food. They hunt during the day and especially at dawn and dusk. Possibly the most famous aspect of bittern behavior is the stance it assumes when it perceives a threat. It points its bill skyward, elongates its body, and even sways with the breeze, all to blend in with its reedy surroundings. This pose is so ingrained that bitterns sometimes adopt it even when they’re out in the open. American Bitterns don't do much socializing apart from migrating in small groups, mating, and facing off over territories—which can be dramatic. Competing males hunker down and approach each other while displaying white plumes between their shoulders. This can escalate into an airborne chase, with the combatants spiraling upwards, trying to stab each other with their bills. A male about to copulate lowers and pumps his head, and fluffs the white feathers that usually lie concealed beneath his wings. Copulation lasts about 15 seconds. Males and females have little to do with each other apart from copulation, although a female may nest near a "booming" male as a way of distracting predators from her brood.
American Bitterns are fairly common, but their numbers are declining in some regions of the U.S. and Canada, according according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The survey estimates a decline in U.S. populations by about 43% between 1966 and 2015. The species rates a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and is not on the 2016 State of the Birds Watch List. These reclusive birds are difficult to survey accurately; regions of the Northeast and Upper Midwest have declined significantly, although estimates of decline for the continent as a whole are small. Nevertheless, they are designated as high concern by Waterbird Conservation of the Americas. With its entire life cycle dependent on wetlands, the bittern’s fate is inextricably linked to that of its frequently degraded or developed habitat. More than half the original wetlands in the lower 48 states have already been destroyed, and inland freshwater wetlands—the American Bittern’s most important nesting and wintering grounds—are among the most threatened. Coupled declines of the bittern and its habitat were recorded in Massachusetts as early as the 1890s. The American Bittern was listed in 1982 and 1987 as a Nongame Species of Management Concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with listed causes including habitat loss, human disturbance, and exposure to pesticides and pollutants. Marshland invasion by exotic plant species may affect habitat suitability, as can siltation, overgrowth of plants, and oxygen depletion due to contamination with nutrients, and other forms of pollution that affect the birds or their prey.
- Lowther, P., A.F. Poole, J.P. Gibbs, S. Melvin, and F.A. Reid. 2009. American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). In The Birds of North America Online, No. 018 (A. Poole, ed.). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.
- Dunne, P. 2006. Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
- North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2016. The State of North
America’s Birds 2016. Environment and Climate Change Canada: Ottawa, Ontario.
- Sauer, J.R., J.E. Hines, J.E. Fallon, K.L. Pardieck, D.J. Ziolkowski, Jr., and W.A. Link. 2016. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015, Version 01.30.2015. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.
- Sibley, D.A. 2014. The Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2016. Longevity records of North American Birds.
- Waterbird Conservation for the Americas, Technical Services Committee, Waterbird Conservation Council. 2006. Conservation status and distribution of solitary-nesting waterbird species. Waterbird Conservation for the Americas.
Resident to medium-distance migrant. Migratory in northern areas where winter temperatures are below freezing, but may reside year-round in milder, southern parts of the range.
Find This Bird
American Bitterns are secretive but fairly numerous. Scanning quiet, reedy marshes from the observation platforms and boardwalks of your local wildlife refuge or wetland park may turn them up. Use binoculars or a spotting scope to pan slowly and carefully along the edge between open water and reeds, and remind your eyes that they need to work overtime to see past the bittern's camouflage. If you're lucky, a patch of dry reeds will suddenly morph into a bittern standing stock still. If you visit during spring and listen out for their unmistakable, weird, pump-er-lunk call, you'll improve your chances considerably.