American Bittern

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Some birds, so very bird-like in appearance, become mixed up in the particulars of being a bird. Do the auriculars have a dark spot on the rear; is there a white median crown-stripe like in the grasshopper sparrow? Other birds, so very bird-like in sound, become mixed up in the minutiae of sounding like a bird. Was that a Cape May warbler singing or another bird in its flight call?

The American bittern, however, is a singular bird, rivaled in appearance only by the least bittern—whose descriptor eliminates it from competition—and unmatched with its weird and enchanting call.

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Looking like a great blue heron that has been squashed into a frame less than a meter tall, the American bittern can be recognized by its squat build, its long stocky neck, and its streaking brown colors along the body. The bird appears to be a shorter cousin of the great blue heron that spends more time in the weight room—squatting and leg pressing, with special attention paid to neck rolls.  

This is a bird rarely seen but more often heard. If seen, the bittern stands vertical and slightly sways with the breeze, becoming uniform with the marsh and cattail environs which it inhabits.

Hearing an American bittern is a special treat. It sounds like the beginning of some strange underwater symphony, a resonant and liquid noise that, to the uninitiated sounds more frog-like. These low frequency calls carry farther than higher pitched calls through dense marsh vegetation, thus enabling males and females to locate one another.

Their interesting and adaptable diet includes: fish, insects, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. The birds often sit rigidly still and slowly lower their bill until they suddenly strike the water, swallowing prey with a gulp.

Bitterns inhabit marshlands with cattails, reeds, and sedges. Nesting takes place in these dense marshy areas but can also occur on dry land in grasslands. Because of its crepuscular (active at twilight) and concealed habits, the American bittern is difficult to survey. Wisconsin's second Breeding Bird Atlas has few breeding confirmations, with the bird being uncommon throughout the state.

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

At Faville Grove, American bitterns are occasionally seen or heard, and just this week I was lucky enough to see a bird on the Kettle Pond as it stalked awkwardly through arrowhead and sedges. For a split second I thought it could be a green heron, but the overwhelming quirkiness of the bird revealed it to be that odd marsh inhabitant, the American bittern. 

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward