American Bittern



Common Name:American Bittern




Genus: Botaurus

Species:Botaurus lentiginosus





The American Bittern belongs to the order Pelecaniformes and the family Ardeidae alongside herons and egrets. These birds recently belonged to the order Ciconiiformes with storks but were moved to their current order due to new DNA analysis that showed similarities with pelicans. The American Bittern is a medium-sized bird that is about 1.5 lbs (700 g) and is approximately 60-85 cm in length. It is cryptically colored with an overall smudged brown/tan tone and heavy streaking on the breast and neck, as well as a dark patch that extends down the side of the neck. The male and female plumages do not exhibit any major differences, nor does its appearance vary much throughout the year. Like other herons and egrets, they have very long necks and bills, as well as particularly short legs.


American Bitterns live and breed in freshwater wetlands that contain a high density of tall vegetation like bulrushes and cattails. Although they can sometimes be found foraging in terrestrial habitats such as dry grasslands during the winter months, they generally stay in the wetlands throughout the entire year. The long, thick bill of the American Bittern allows it to feed on both large and small prey which including insects (dragonflies and waterbugs), amphibians (frogs and tadpoles), small fish and mammals, (eels, catfish and voles) and crayfish. In general, American Bitterns rely on stealth to capture their prey. They stand motionless (or move very slowly) while searching for prey and then quickly dart their bill forward to capture it.




The American Bittern is a very solitary bird that prefers to remain hidden and inconspicuous. When it senses that it may be detected, it will often stand still and stretch its neck straight up so that it blends in with the surrounding vegetation aided by its heavy streaking. It generally stays on the ground and walks slowly, rarely perching in trees. When two males come across one another, they give each other a defensive display that involves crouching and showing white shoulder plumes, often followed by an aerial chase. In terms of breeding, American Bitterns are mainly monogamous and form pair bonds with females when they arrive from migration during March and early May. Males attract females through elaborate displays and often use sound to communicate through the thick vegetation. Their vocalizations are low-pitched and are often described as a thunderous pumping or drumming. Nests are generally built in standing water surrounded by thick vegetation and eggs are laid in May and June. Females build the nests, incubate the eggs, and feed/brood the young. Offspring are altricial and first leave the nest after 1-2 weeks, but remain close by for another 1-2 weeks to receive supplemental food as they learn to forage.




The American Bittern is generally hard to find due to their preference of staying hidden among the tall vegetation of their habitats. They can be found in wetlands such as those in the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge during the summer.


Birds of Western New York is brought to you by the Institute for the Study of Human-Animal Relations at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY.