American Bittern

Botaurus lentiginosus

  • Version: 2.0 — Published April 1, 2009
  • Peter E. Lowther, Alan F. Poole, James P. Gibbs, Scott M. Melvin, and F. A. Reid

Free Introduction Article Access

The Introduction Article is just the first of 11 articles in each species account that provide life history information for the species. The remaining articles provide detailed information regarding distribution, migration, habitat, diet, sounds, behavior, breeding, current population status and conservation. Each species account also includes a multimedia section that displays the latest photos, audio selections and videos from Macaulay Library’s extensive galleries. Written and continually updated by acknowledged experts on each species, Birds of North America accounts include a comprehensive bibliography of published research on the species.

A subscription is needed to access the remaining account articles and multimedia content.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In
Figure 1. Distribution of the American Bittern.

Distribution of the American Bittern in North and Central America.

Adult male American Bittern displaying white shoulder plumes, NY, May

Shoulder plumes evident only during the courtship period; generally not visible the rest of the year. Montezuma NWR, New York., May 09, 2006; photographer Gerrit Vyn

The American Bittern is a solitary, cryptically colored heron that breeds in freshwater wetlands from the mid-United States to northern Canada. It prefers wetlands dominated by tall, emergent vegetation, and within these habitats frequents vegetation fringes and shorelines. It relies on stealth more than pursuit to forage, waiting motionless for long periods to capture passing prey—mainly insects, amphibians, crayfish, and small fish and mammals. It is most active during crepuscular hours.

This bittern uses resounding calls to communicate within the thick vegetation that dominates its nesting habitats. These calls have an eerie, ventriloquistic quality, and many vernacular names for this species, including “stake-driver,” “thunder-pumper,” and “mire-drum,” alludes to these calls. Males use elaborate displays to court females but participate little in rearing the young. Females build nests; incubate eggs, and feed and brood chicks.

Because of this species' secretive nature and inaccessible habitats, remarkably little is known about basic aspects of its biology, including sources of mortality, habitat use, mating systems, and population structure. Basic research on its natural history would help to conserve the species, which is undergoing substantial declines over much of the U.S. owing largely to loss and degradation of wetland habitats.

Recommended Citation

Lowther, P. E., A. F. Poole, J. P. Gibbs, S. M. Melvin, and F. A. Reid (2009). American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.