American BitternBotaurus lentiginosus

Gerard Bailey/VIREO
Gerard Bailey/VIREO
adult head shot
Brad Bolduan/VIREO
adult in reeds
Garth McElroy/VIREO
Garth McElroy/VIREO
American Bittern
American Bittern


23-34" (58-86 cm). A secretive, medium-sized, streaked brown heron. Outer wing appears blackish brown in flight, contrasting with lighter brown of inner wing and body. At close range adults show long black stripe down side of throat. Young night-herons are similar but stockier, with shorter necks and more rounded wings without dark tips; they lack the secretive habits of bitterns.


On breeding grounds, a loud pumping sound, oong-KA-chunk! repeated a few times and often audible for half a mile. Flight call a low kok-kok-kok.


flight calls


Freshwater and brackish marshes and marshy lakeshores; regular in salt marshes during migration and winter.


Breeds from southeastern Alaska, Manitoba, and Newfoundland south to California, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Carolinas. Winters from coastal British Columbia, Southwest, Illinois, and along Atlantic Coast to Long Island (occasionally farther north), and south to Costa Rica (rarely) and Greater Antilles.


The American Bittern has a remarkable, though rarely seen, courtship display. The male arches his back, exposing whitish plumes, shortens his neck, dips his breast forward, and "booms" at the female. Both members of the pair engage in a complicated aerial display flight. Bitterns spend most of their lives in concealment, stepping slowly and methodically through the reeds in search of food. When approached, it prefers to freeze and trust its concealing coloration rather than flush like other herons. When an observer is nearby, it will often stretch its neck up, point its bill skyward, and sway slowly from side to side, as if imitating waving reeds. If this doesn't fool the intruder, the bittern will fly off, uttering a low barking call.


2-6 buff or olive-buff eggs placed on a platform of reeds concealed in a marsh. Does not nest in colonies.

Similar Species


Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

22-27" (56-69 cm). W. 3'8" (1.1 m). Medium-sized heron. Adult slate-gray with black head, white cheeks, yellowish crown and plumes, black bill, and yellow or orange legs.

adult (breeding)

Black-crowned Night-Heron

23-28" (58-71 cm). W. 3'8" (1.1 m). A medium-sized, stocky, rather short-necked heron with black crown and back, gray wings, and white underparts. Bill short and black, legs pinkish or yellowish.



25-28" (64-71 cm). A long-legged, long-necked, goose-sized marsh bird. Grayish brown with white spots and streaks; long, slender, down-curved bill.


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