GCBO's December Bird of the Month
American Bittern
by Mike Williams

The American Bittern, (Botaurus lentigenosus), is a medium sized, rather secretive wading bird. Originally part of a superspecies of the Eurasian Bittern first described by Linnaeus in 1758 in Sweden, the North American species was later split out into its own species by Montagu, (a British naturalist), in 1813. Today it is sometimes lumped with the South American Bittern (Botaurus pinnatus) by some ornithologists.  

The American Bittern’s range extends from central Canada down to Kansas where is it is a summer migrant and South to Panama and the West Indies where it is a winter visitor. Resident on the Eastern Gulf Coast and along the Southern part of the Atlantic Coast, the bittern is a winter visitor to Texas.
It is typically found in fresh, brackish and even saltwater marshes, particularly those with good vegetation cover and thick reed beds, but can sometimes be found in open grasslands.

Typically monogamous, the female choses the nest site and builds the nest in dense vegetation almost always over water. The nest is made of cattails, reeds etc. in which 2 to7 light brown eggs are laid. These are incubated by the female for around 26 days. 

Food is variable from insects to amphibians, small fish, crustaceans and even the occasional small mammal, bird or even a baby alligator. These are caught through stealth with the Bittern remaining totally motionless for long periods. 


A medium sized heron like bird with predominantly brown upperparts. The bill, eye and legs are yellow. Forehead and nape are dark brown with a buffy crown. The throat is white as are the underparts, the latter being streaked with brown. When startled into flight, (which is not common as they usually freeze in place), it is strong and direct. The tail is squared and is brown both above and below.
In breeding season its call is a loud repeated “oong-ka-chuck”. Its flight call is a low “ka-ka-ka”.

Interesting Facts:

  • A group of bitterns is known as a dash, pint, pretense, freeze and siege. Common nicknames include stake driver, thunder-pumper and mire drum.
  • Its courtship is rarely observed but is very elaborate. The booming call is produced from the birds’ specialized esophagus that acts as an amplifier.
  • Bitterns were originally called haeferblate in old English, the Bittern name coming from a French variant of its Latin name.
  • The total global population is estimated at around 3 million birds and the American Bitter is listed as Least Concern

To download Mike Williams's photo of this cool bird, click HERE

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