Return to Main Page   Dakota Birder Blog    

American Bittern

Botaurus lentiginosus

Length: 26 inches Wingspan: 45 inches Seasonality: Summer
ID Keys: Brown overall with white streaks on underparts, long black neck stripe, chunky appearance

American Bittern - Botaurus lentiginosusThe American Bittern is more often heard than seen, with its loud booming cry heard for long distances late in the evening and at night. They inhabit large, vegetated wetland areas, usually slipping through the vegetation unseen.  If startled on its summer breeding grounds, it will stand motionless with its head pointed upward, using its striped underparts to blend into the vegetation. The plumage lends itself well to such a strategy during the spring months as they forage amongst the dead standing cattails from the prior growing season, but despite the color differences, the striping can also be surprisingly effective as camouflage amongst the green shoots of a new summer. During the winter months, they move to different habitats and generally abandon the "freeze" behavior.


During the summer breeding season, American Bitterns use marshes and sloughs, lakes with emergent wetland vegetation around its shoreline.  During the winter months, they can be found in areas where the waters don't freeze, and are often found in brackish wetlands near the coast.


Fish, aquatic insects, frogs, tadpoles, salamanders, crustaceans, small rodents, and small snakes and lizards


Will feed at any time of day or night.  When feeding, they often stand motionless, blending in the vegetation and waiting for prey to approach, and then spearing it with a quick jab of their bill.


June and July in South Dakota.  Nesting is primarily done amongst the thick vegetation along a shallow water shoreline, such as in cattails or rushes.  The nest is a mound of dead cattails and grasses, lined with finer grasses, elevated 6-12 inches above the water's surface. Two to seven eggs are laid, and are incubated by the female. Incubation takes 3 1/2 to 4 weeks.

Interactive eBird Map:

Click to access an interactive eBird map of American Bittern sightings


Very unusual, booming oonka-oonka-oonka-oonka that carries for long distances.


Summers throughout much of the U.S. and southern Canada.  Winters near U.S. coasts, the extreme southern U.S., Mexico, and Central America.

Similar Species:

Several species have a similar overall shape.  However, plumage patterns and size generally make the American Bittern distinctive if it is seen well.  If not seen well, they could potentially be confused with the following:

Least Bittern - Ixobrychus exilis  Black-crowned Night-heron 1 - Nycticorax nycticorax  Black-crowned Night-heron 9 - Nycticorax nycticorax 
Least Bittern  Black-crowned Night-heron (adult) Black-crowned Night-heron (juvenile)

South Dakota "Hotspot" -

I've had a lot of luck finding American Bitterns in the expansive wetland areas in and around Lake Thompson.  However, they could potentially be found in almost any wetland habitat with extensive wetland vegetation, as I've found them in flooded ditches with cattails, small ponds with wetland vegetation around the margins, or very extensive habitats like those near Lake Thompson. Western Minnehaha County and the wetland complexes in the region are another area where I've seen them (or heard them) relatively often.


Has declined in parts of its range due to habitat loss, especially in the southern end of its breeding range.  However, American Bitterns are still found across a broad geographic area, and are common in many parts of their range. The IUCN considers the American Bittern a species of "Least Concern".

Further Information:

Photo Information:

May 2nd, 2006 -- Near Tea in Lincoln County -- Terry Sohl

Additional Photos:

Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution American Bittern photos.

Audio File Credits:

Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
 American Bittern - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Uncommon summer resident and breeder in most of the state

Additional American Bittern Photos
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos
 American Bittern 1 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 2 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 3 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 4 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 5 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 6 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 7 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 8 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 9 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 10 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 11 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 12 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 13 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 14 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 15 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 16 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 17 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 18 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 19 - Botaurus lentiginosusAmerican Bittern 20 - Botaurus lentiginosus