Solitary and elusive, the American bittern can make many birders bitter when its superb camouflage makes it difficult to spot even at close range.
American Bittern, Thunderpumper, Slue-Pumper
- Bill: Thick, pointed, yellowish-black
- Size: 23 inches long with 45-inch wingspan, heavyset body
- Colors: Brown, white, buff, yellow
- Markings: Genders are similar with overall brown plumage and faintly mottled upperparts, lighter underparts with vertical brown streaks, white throat and a black malar stripe or patch. Wingtips are darker, especially in flight, and eyes are yellow. Legs and feet are pale yellow or greenish.
Amphibians, fish, reptiles, rodents, aquatic insects
Habitat and Migration:
These wading birds are common residents of dense marshes, bogs and reedy wetlands in both fresh and saltwater. They can be found year-round along coastal northern California north to the southern tip of British Columbia, and in summer their breeding range extends throughout most of Canada and the northern United States. In winter, American bitterns migrate to the extreme southwestern and southeastern United States including Florida and along the Gulf Coast, as well as Mexico and Central America. These birds are occasionally reported as vagrants in Europe.
The unusual dripping or thumping beats of this bird's calls have given it a variety of common names including Thunderpumper and Slue-Pumper. The low booms of the call can be heard from quite a distance, and these birds are more often seen than heard. Tapping notes are also part of regular calls, and a subtle high-low pitch pattern is common.
American bitterns are shy, solitary birds. They are patient hunters and will stand motionless to stalk prey before spearing it with their bills, and when threatened they may freeze and point their bills straight up to blend in with their reedy surroundings using their superior camouflage. Their necks can be held in either compact or elongated positions, and plumage markings such as the malar stripe may look very different or even disappear depending on the posture.
These birds show some evidence of polygamy in mating. The female parent will incubate a brood for 27-29 days, and both parents feed the young birds for 14 days after hatching. One brood is typical per year, with 2-7 eggs laid.
Attracting American Bitterns:
These wary birds are not common in backyards, but they may be found in appropriate suburban habitats where reedy marshes are available. Wetland conservation is essential, and hazards such as litter, pollution and fishing line are dangerous for American bitterns.
- Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis)
- Yellow Bittern (Ixobrychus sinensis)
- Great Bittern (Botaurus stellaris)