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American Bittern

This bird is known for its excellent camouflage and for its unique and distinctive "pump-er-lunk" call.

The American Bittern is a medium-sized heron.  American Bitterns have compact, thick bodies, thicker necks than most herons, a slightly hunched posture, and shorter legs than most herons.

You’ll need to keep your eyes peeled to spot an American Bittern. These streaky, buff and brown herons blend into the reeds exceptionally well.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to lose sight of them if you do spot one; this is especially true when they’re striking a concealment pose with the bill and neck pointed skyward.



American Bitterns are mostly white, buff, and warm brown. They have bold streaks on their necks and can be very difficult to see amongst vegetation. When in flight, the darker outer parts of their wings can be seen and contrasted clearly with the warm brown throughout the rest of the bird.

American Bittern

These birds are roughly 23.6 to 33.5 inches long, weigh 13.1 to 17.6 ounces, and have a wingspan of 36.2 inches. They’re smaller than a Great Blue Heron but larger than a Green Heron.

Female American Bitterns look identical to male American Bitterns.



American Bitterns consume crustaceans, insects, amphibians, small mammals, reptiles, and fish. The insects that they consume the most include giant water bugs, water striders, water beetles, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and water scorpions. Fish they consume often include catfish, eels, pickerel, suckers, sunfish, perch, sticklebacks, and killifish.

In addition, American bitterns eat crabs, crayfish, frogs, salamanders, tadpoles, garter snakes, meadow voles, and water snakes to round out their diet.

American Bitterns usually forage when the light is dim, at the fringes of vegetated areas and shorelines.

When foraging, a bird may sway to warm up its muscles so it can strike quickly or see past the glare on the surface of the water.


Nest And Eggs

American Bittern

American Bitterns make their nests among thick stands of bulrushes, sedges that grow out of the water, and cattails. They’ll sometimes nest in grassland areas that have thick, tall herbaceous plants on the dry ground. It’s not well known who chooses the nesting site, but little research supports that the females do.

Female American Bitterns gather materials, build the nest, incubate the eggs, broods, and feeds the hatchlings with no help from the male whatsoever. She creates a platform or mound that’s about 3.5 to 8 inches above the surface of the water, using dry, dead sedges, cattails, reeds, and other vegetation.

She’ll also line the nest with hair or fine grasses. The outside diameter of the nest can be anywhere from 10 to 15 inches.

The clutch size can range from 2 to 7 eggs. The birds incubate the eggs for around 28 days. After that, the young bitterns stay in the nest for 7 to 14 days.


Current Situation

American Bitterns are relatively common birds. However, their numbers declined in some portions of Canada and the U.S. between the early 1960s and 2019. Their estimated breeding population is 2.5 million.

These solitary birds are hard to survey properly, and birds in the Upper Midwest and Northeast have declined considerably even though the estimated decline for the continent is slight.

The birds’ lifecycle fully depends on wetlands, so their fate is entirely reliant on the health of wetlands, which are frequently developed or degraded.

American Bittern in flight

Unfortunately, over half the original wetlands in the continental U.S. have been destroyed, and the American Bittern’s most important wintering and nesting grounds are among the most threatened.

In addition, continued exposure to pollutants and pesticides, human disturbance, habitat loss, and the invasion of exotic plants in marshes continue to threaten these birds.



  • American Bitterns are able to focus their yellow eyes downward. This gives them a funny cross-eyed yet startled-looking appearance. In addition, the orientation of the bird’s eyes enhances its ability to find and catch prey.
  • American Bitterns’ eyes turn orange during their breeding season.
  • A group of bitterns is called a variety of things like a “freeze,” “dash,” “pretense,” “pint,” or “siege” of bitterns.
  • Both males and females take part in complicated aerial displays when courting. The male will shorten his neck, arch his back, dip his breast down, and “boom” at the female. These displays are rarely seen.


Similar Species

The American Bittern has features that are similar to other birds. Here are some similar species:


Female Least Bittern

Least Bittern. Photograph © ethan.gosnell2

Least Bittern

American Bitterns are a little bit larger than Least Bitterns. They’re also darker brown overall and have more streaks than Least Bitterns.

Additionally, American Bitterns tend to stand in the water while Least Bitterns tend to sit on the stalks of marsh vegetation.


Black-crowned Night-Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

American Bitterns and Black-crowned Night-Herons look similar in flight, but adult American Bitterns have streaking on their bellies that Least Bitterns don’t have.

American Bitterns also have longer and sharper bills.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night-Herons are the ones that look the most similar to American Bitterns; however, they have thicker, blunter, and shorter bills as well as shorter necks.

Most importantly, as the name suggests, night herons are active during the night.




Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

American Bitterns and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons may look similar in flight, but adult American Bitterns have longer and sharper bills.

Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Herons have thicker, blunter, shorter bills and shorter necks.

These herons are not commonly seen during the day.


Green Heron

Green Heron

Green Heron

American Bitterns are larger than Green Herons.

Plumage-wise, these birds are completely different. Although Green Herons are not really green, they have much more dark greenish-blue plumage, with some darker brown. American Bitterns are lighter in color and have much lighter brown tomes in their plumages.

Juvenile Green Herons are the ones that look the most similar, but they have a dark cap, a deep reddish neck, and are darker overall.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the range of the American Bittern?

American Bitterns are medium-distance migrants or year-round residents. They may inhabit the milder southern portions of their range year-round, while others migrate from northern areas where winter temperatures reach below freezing.

Are American Bitterns rare?

No, American Bitterns are not rare. American Bitterns are relatively common birds. Their estimated breeding population is 2.5 million. They’re rated 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, which means they’re a species of fairly low concern.

What does the American Bittern symbolize?

American Bitterns symbolize the importance of speaking your mind and raising your voice; these birds are best known for their noise.

Why is a bittern called a bittern?

American Bitterns got their name from the generic name Botaurus. James Francis Stephens, an English naturalist, gave them this name. It’s derived from the Medieval Latin butaurus, which means “bittern.”

About the Author

Brianna Goulet

Brianna loves to get outdoors for everything creative and fun. She has a passion for birds and is a hobbyist wildlife photographer based in Central Florida. Her goal is to share everything you need to know about birds so you can get out there, explore, and identify confidently!

Let others know your thoughts or ask an expert

Barb Morris

Thursday 28th of December 2023

What is the difference between a male and female American bitterns. I have photographed two bitterns and I would like to make sure that they are male and female. Thank you. Barb Morris

Patrick O'Donnell

Sunday 31st of December 2023

@Barb- How nice to photograph those birds! It's pretty tough to sell males and females apart. They look the same but male birds are slightly larger. If you photographed both birds in the same area and one looks a little bit smaller than the other, they probably are a male and female.


Sunday 30th of July 2023

This is a great piece of writing and very useful. Thank for helping me better understand the American Bittern. I recently saw one for the first time in central Massachusetts and wanted to learn more about it. Thank You

Patrick O'Donnell

Monday 31st of July 2023

@John- Thank you for your kind words. We are glad to hear that and hope you see more American Bitterns!

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