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American Bittern


IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

You'll need sharp eyes to catch sight of an American Bittern. This streaky, brown and buff heron can materialize among the reeds, and disappear as quickly, especially when striking a concealment pose with neck stretched and bill pointed skyward. These stealthy carnivores stand motionless amid tall marsh vegetation, or patiently stalk fish, frogs, and insects. They are at their most noticeable in spring, when the marshes resound with their odd booming calls that sounds like the gulps of a thirsty giant.


  • Songs
  • Courtesy of Macaulay Library
    © Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

To communicate with each other through dense vegetation American Bitterns use low-frequency calls, which carry farther than higher-pitched sounds. During breeding season the males make a bizarre, resonant three-syllable pump-er-lunk call with a liquid quality; females may respond with a similar but quieter sound. The male’s call is preceded by clacking and gulping. To accomplish the pump-er-lunk sound, the male inflates his esophagus by way of almost violent body contortions—opening and closing his bill as if lunging for flying insects—and then uses the stored air to unleash his call. Repeated up to 10 times in succession, the call probably serves as both a territorial signal and an advertisement for mates. When flushed, American Bitterns often emit a hoarse kok-kok-kok or nasal haink. Males may give a continual chu-peep call during mating.

Other Sounds

Bitterns clack the mandibles of their bills together to make sounds preceding their territorial call.

Search the Macaulay Library online archive for more sounds and videos

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.

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Territorial Call of the American Bittern [video]



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