American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus)

The American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) is a secretive bird. Although it is rarely seen, you are sure to know that one is about when you hear its eerie, booming call echoing through the reeds. Populations of American Bitterns can be found in areas extending from Central British Columbia, toward Newfoundland, down to the Gulf Coast and Across to southern California. This stocky wetland bird species migrates only a short distance from home. Sadly, American Bittern populations are suffering due to the damage being done to their wetland habitats. Mankind’s lack of concern is once again leading to the decline of a vital bird species.

American Bitterns are noted as being large, stocky birds measuring a length of about 23 inches and a wingspan of 45 inches. This wading bird species can be identified by its bright yellow eyes and yellow bill with a dark culmen. The upperparts are a rich dark brown whilst the throat is white with black/brown streaks. When in flight, its outer flight feathers are distinctly dark compared to the light brown inner area of the wing. Adults have a black stripe running down the side of the throat. The two genders look alike whilst juveniles lack the noticeable streaking. If you do not spot the American Bittern itself, you will be able to identify the bird by its call, a deep “oong-ka-choonk”.

American Bitterns dine on a number of wetland creatures including insects, frogs, salamanders, little fish, small snakes, crayfish and sometimes voles. These quiet birds rely on stealth when foraging for a meal. They will remain motionless, undetected by potential prey. As the snack nears, the bittern will speedily dart forward, nabbing the creature in its bill. Prey is killed by shaking and biting, after which it is swallowed whole.

Breeding takes place in the north between mid-April and early May. Males are typically polygamous, but they differ from other herons in that they are not colonial nesters. The courtship display of the American Bittern is truly fascinating. Arching his back and dipping forward he serenades the female. Together they participate in a complex aerial display. The nest is built by the female who constructs it out of sedges, reeds and other wetland plants. Incubation lasts 24-29 days. Although the young offspring leave the nest at around 2 weeks, the female still cares for them.

A very elusive bird, the American Bittern goes to great lengths to remain hidden. When approached, the bittern will stretch it neck, staring up at the sky, standing absolutely still or swaying slowly to imitate the reeds. If danger continues to threaten it will fly away with a low barking call.

The American Bittern has been declared state endangered in Connecticut and falls under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The chief reason for the lessening numbers of American bitterns is habitat loss. Marshes and swamps forming the habitat of the species have been built over and used for commercial gain. You and I can help by supporting wetland conservation legislation as well as efforts to control water polution. Why not make an effort to save the American Bittern.