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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.

Keys to identification Help

Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    American Bitterns are medium-sized herons with thick, compact bodies. They have shorter legs and thicker necks than typical herons and a slightly hunched posture. The daggerlike bill is long, straight, and sharply pointed. The wings are broad but the wingtips are somewhat pointed.

  • Color Pattern

    American Bitterns are mostly warm brown, buff, and white. They are strongly streaked, especially on the neck, and they can be very hard to see against marsh vegetation. In flight the dark outer wings contrast sharply with the brown of the rest of the bird.

  • Behavior

    Bitterns are stealth predators and typically stand motionless as they wait for prey to approach, or stalk it with barely perceptible motions. They adopt a classic pose when alarmed, with the beak pointing straight up, helping this streaky bird blend in with its reedy background. They tend to forage alone.

  • Habitat

    Look for American Bitterns in shallow freshwater marshes, typically toward the margins and among reeds and other vegetation; they are rarely out in the open.

Range Map Help

American Bittern Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp


    American Bittern

    • Stocky, medium-sized heron
    • Intricate patterning on wings with thick, rufous stripes on neck and breast
    • Thick, dull gray bill
    • Brown and rufous overall
    • © Kurt Kirchmeier, Saskatchewan, Canada, May 2012

    American Bittern

    • Usually secretive and hidden motionless amongst reeds in wetland habitats
    • Thick rufous-brown stripes on neck
    • Intricate patterning on back and wings
    • Stout, dull yellow/gray bill
    • © Bill Thompson, Newburyport, Massachusetts, October 2012

    American Bittern

    • Usually secretive and retiring
    • Distinctive chocolate-brown plumage with fine patterning on wings/nack
    • Thick stripes on neck and breast
    • © Hawkperson, Mountain View Shoreline Park, California, March 2013

Similar Species

Similar Species

Their warm-brown coloration and stocky bodies help distinguish American Bitterns from most other herons. The mostly gray Black-crowned Night-Heron and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron have similar proportions and can look similar in flight and in bad light, but these birds have shorter, thicker, and blunter bills, and their necks are even shorter than the American Bittern's. Least Bitterns are less than half the size of American Bitterns; they are lighter brown overall and less streaky, with a blackish back, and they tend to cling to the stalks of marsh vegetation whereas the American Bittern usually stands in the water. Green Herons are also smaller than American Bitterns, and their plumage is darker overall, with a dark cap, deep reddish neck, and greenish back.

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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