Photo Credit: Don Getty
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Botaurus lentiginosus
OTHER NAMES: Stargazer, thunder-pumper, stake-driver
STATUS: Uncommon to rare in winter, spring, and fall in Gulf Coast region. Rare inland in fall, winter, and spring. MODERATE CONSERVATION CONCERN.
DESCRIPTION: American bitterns are medium-sized herons that stand 24-33 inches tall and weigh around a pound. Both male and female adults are brown above and white and brown streaked underneath, with white throats. They have a rusty brown crown and black patch extending below their eye down to their necks. Juvenile bitterns are similar in coloration, but do not have the black neck patch.
DISTRIBUTION: American bitterns winter throughout the gulf coast and north along the Atlantic coast to Virginia. Bitterns breed from the mid-US to Northern Canada. They also have local breeding populations located in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Mexico. These secretive birds can typically be seen in wetlands across the state during spring and fall migration and are uncommon throughout the winter.
HABITAT: Bitterns can be found mostly in freshwater wetlands with tall, emergent vegetation. During the winter, they use those wetlands, but choose areas where water doesn’t freeze and remains open. Also, they may be seen in brackish coastal marshes, or foraging in grasslands.
FEEDING HABITS: American Bitterns will eat insects, amphibians, small fish, small mammals, and crayfish. They can be seen foraging along shorelines and edges of vegetation. Because of their coloration, they blend in well with vertical marsh vegetation such as reeds and cattails and can stand motionless, with their head towards the sky to make them appear long like reeds with their streaked appearance, and their eyes pointed downward waiting for prey items to come by.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Bitterns, known as very shy and solitary birds, once reaching their breeding grounds form pair bonds and begin nesting around April-May. Nests are small platforms made in dense emergent vegetation, often in cattails, bulrushes, and sedges. Females lay 4-6 brown to olive-buff colored eggs and incubate for up to 4 weeks. Females also do most of the brood rearing and feeding themselves until their young leave the nest at 1-2 weeks. Young bitterns will stay near the nest for another 1-2 weeks, while the adults help feed them.
Because bitterns are so secretive, little is known about predation, population status, and other life history traits.
Lowther, Peter, Alan F. Poole, J.P. Gibbs, S. Melvin, and F.A. Reid. 2009. American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithica: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/018.
Author: Carrie Threadgill, Nongame Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries