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American Bittern
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American Bittern

Facts about the American bittern

Family : Ardeidae
Length: 61 to 86 cm
Wingspan: 127 cm
Weight: 706 g
Lifespan: 8 years

  • Chunky body.
  • Long legs.
  • Long neck, long bill.
  • Belly is variegated buff and brown, back is brown.
  • Broad black whisker on side of neck (in adults).
  • Blackish wing feathers distinctive in flight.
  • Wings are rather pointy.
  • Short tail.

The American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) is a solitary and elusive wader, common throughout Southern Québec. It also occurs as far north as the Rupert River.  The bittern nests inland, close to large bodies of water.

The brood

The eggs hatch in late spring and early summer. A brood usually consists of 3 to 5 eggs that are buff-brown to olive buff in colour. Incubation lasts from 24 to 29 days and begins as soon as the first egg is laid so the baby birds hatch one at a time. The nest is a platform concealed by the tall marsh grasses, and is built just above water level or right on the ground. The nest is made of cattails, reeds, sedges and cordgrass.  It is sometimes re-used for several years at a time.

Beautiful wader

The American Bittern leads a solitary and reclusive life in the thick vegetation of marshes. Its call, a throaty oonk-a-look, can be heard at dusk. It can be sighted from a distance of 1 kilometer. 

Lightening speed

The bittern is an amazing hunter. It freezes motionless or walks at an excruciatingly slow pace, but when it locates its prey, it strikes with lightening speed. Its diet consists of large quantities of fish, but it also feeds on snakes, amphibians, insects and small mammals. The bittern hunts mainly from dusk until dawn, only rarely during the day.

Camouflage expert

The bittern is a true expert of the art of camouflage. When it senses danger, it stretches its neck and points its bill skyward, thus blending in with the surrounding vegetation. When it walks, swaying like the tall grasses, it is very difficult to sight. Its knack for camouflage makes it virtually invisible to predators.


The American Bittern lives in the tall reeds and grasses of freshwater and brackish marshes. Swamps, wet meadows, alder and willow thickets are its preferred habitat. The species is in decline due to the disappearance of wetlands.



The American Bittern is a migratory nesting bird. In April, it migrates at night for its return to its northern summering grounds. And so begins the mating season.

First the male and female chase each other, swooping and circling in the air. Then they land on the ground and both display the white nuptial plumes that are usually concealed under the wings, except during these mating antics. Bitterns are monogamous.


During the summer season, bitterns are fairly common throughout the southern regions of Québec.

The male is very defensive of his territory, particularly during the nesting period, when the eggs and the baby birds are vulnerable to predators such as the Red fox, the American mink and various birds of prey.  The baby birds leave the nest 7 to 14 days after they’ve hatched. Until they start to fly, the mother feeds them semi-digested insects and small vertebrates which she regurgitates.

Fall - Winter

The American Bittern migrates up until the month of November. It winters in sunnier climes such as Bermuda, Cuba or the Virgin Islands and on occasion, will travel as far as South America. 

Bitterns head north again at the end of winter, at which time the young are mature enough to breed.   


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