American Bittern Fact File
The American bittern has a streaked brown and buff appearance. This coloration helps them to hide in among reeds. On the underside their body is heavily streaked with brown or white. A black stripes runs from the below the eye and down the throat.
These birds are a medium sized member of the heron family. Their body measures between 60 and 85cm (23.5 and 34in) long with an average weight of between 500 and 900g (18-32oz).
Males and females are similar in appearance.
Their eyes are colored yellow for most of the year but turn orange in the breeding season. These have the ability to focus downward. This gives them a cross-eyed appearance. It is used to help spot and capture prey.
The American bittern is a carnivore. They feed on a range of small fish, eels, snakes, amphibians, insects, crayfish and small mammals.
Prey is chased and seized in the beak before being swallowed whole. Food is typically swallowed head first.
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Despite their name the American bittern is also recorded from parts of Europe along with the range through South, Central and North America as suggested by their name. Resident populations can be found in Antigua and Barbuda; Bahamas; Barbados; Bermuda; Canada; Cayman Islands; Cuba; Dominica; Dominican Republic; El Salvador; Guadeloupe; Guatemala; Haiti; Honduras; Martinique; Mexico; Montserrat; Nicaragua; Puerto Rico; Saint Kitts and Nevis; Saint Lucia; Saint Pierre and Miquelon; Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; Turks and Caicos Islands while most of their breeding takes place in North America.
Vagrant populations are recorded from Denmark; Faroe Islands; Greenland; Iceland; Ireland; Norway; Panama; Portugal; Spain (Canary Is.); United Kingdom; Virgin Islands, British and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
They make their home in dense reebeds, wetlands or marshes where they are camouflaged among the dense vegetation.
Pairs begin to form in May when the females gather at the breeding site. These animals are primarily monogamous but some have been recorded with multiple partners.
They build their nest in among rushes at the water level though the nest site is selected by the female. The nest is a platform of vegetation.
Up to four eggs will be laid with one laid per day. Incubation lasts 24 to 28 days. The eggs are colored pale brown or buff.
The female takes full responsibility for brooding and feeding the juveniles. Young are fed regurgitated food by their mother.
Males take responsibility for defending the nest primarily through creating a loud booming noise. During this display he may also hold his head low and fluff up his feathers.
Hatchings can leave the nest as early as one to two weeks old but will be fed by the parents for up to four weeks.
Their first flight is estimated to occur between 7 and 8 weeks old but further study on this is needed.
Northern populations of the American bittern will migrate south during the winter to the southern USA or the Caribbean.
These animals are solitary while they are feeding.
American bitterns are primarily active at dawn and dusk but may hunt at any time of the day.
They create a dramatic vocalization which is created by contortions of their air-filled esophagus. It has been likened to the sound of a water pump operating.
Males are highly territorial. Scientists studying the species have used this to their advantage. By playing the call of a male they can lure other males to come ward it off and thus capture them.
Predators and Threats
When threatened they extend their neck and either freeze or sway gently with the breeze in an attempt to blend in with the vegetation.
Their haunting call has led to a range of nicknames including the stake-driver, thunder-pumper, and mire-drum.
Top, Middle One and Middle Two
By Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren – American Bittern, CC BY 2.0,
Burnie, D., 2011. Animal. 3rd ed. London: DK
BirdLife International. 2016. Botaurus lentiginosus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22697340A93609388. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22697340A93609388.en. Downloaded on 23 March 2021.
Harris, M. 1999. “Botaurus lentiginosus” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed March 22, 2021 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Botaurus_lentiginosus/
Audubon. 2021. American Bittern. [online] Available at: <https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/american-bittern> [Accessed 23 March 2021].
BirdWeb. 2021. American Bittern. [online] Available at: <https://birdweb.org/birdweb/bird/american_bittern> [Accessed 24 March 2021].
Nhpbs.org. 2021. American Bittern – Botaurus lentiginosus – NatureWorks. [online] Available at: <https://nhpbs.org/natureworks/americanbittern.htm> [Accessed 24 March 2021].
Allaboutbirds.org. 2021. American Bittern Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. [online] Available at: <https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Bittern/overview> [Accessed 24 March 2021].
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