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Forest and Rangeland Birds of the United States

Natural History and Habitat Use

American Bittern -- Botaurus lentiginosus


RANGE: Breeds from extreme southeastern Alaska, central British Columbia, and southern Mackenzie to central Quebec and Newfoundland south to southern California, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida. Breeds rarely south of northern California, Utah, Plains States, Ohio River Valley, and Virginia. Winters from southern British Columbia, Utah, New Mexico, central parts of Gulf States, and southern New England south to southern California, Gulf of Mexico, and along Atlantic Coast.

STATUS: Rather common, but elusive.

HABITAT: Inhabits freshwater or saltwater marshes, bogs, swamps, wet meadows, or wherever the ground is wet and tall, emergent vegetation such as cattails, bulrushes, and reeds are present. Usually perches on the ground, sometimes on a log or stump, or on cattails 3 to 4 feet above water, rarely in trees. Generally solitary; will freeze with neck and bill pointing upward, blending into marsh vegetation.

SPECIAL HABITAT REQUIREMENTS: Wetlands with tall, emergent vegetation.

NEST: Usually a solitary nester, but may form loose colonies in favorable habitat. Typically nests on flimsy platform of cattails, reeds, or sedges, 4 to 5 inches above water in emergent vegetation, occasionally on the ground among grasses or in shrubs.

FOOD: Stalks food in marshes, meadows, along edges of shallow ponds, or wherever the ground is wet. Also searches for grasshoppers in dry meadows. Consumes mollusks, spiders, crustaceans, fish, frogs, salamanders, snakes, lizards, small birds, small mammals, eels, and land and aquatic insects.

REFERENCES: Armistead in Farrand 1983a, Grinnell and Miller 1944, Low and Mansell 1983, Palmer 1962, Robbins et al. 1983, Weller 1961.


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