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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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Forest and Rangeland Birds of the United States

Natural History and Habitat Use

Least Bittern -- Ixobrychus exilis

RANGE: Breeds locally from southern Oregon to central Baja California and southern coastal Sonora in the west; in the east across Canada from southern Manitoba, southern Ontario, and southern New Brunswick south to Texas, the Gulf Coast, Florida, and the Greater Antilles. Winters from southern California, southern Texas, and northern Florida south to Panama and Colombia.

STATUS: Locally common, but elusive.

HABITAT: Inhabits freshwater marshes, bogs, and swamps with dense cattails, reeds, bulrushes, buttonbush, sawgrass, smartweeds, arrowheads, and other tall aquatic and semi-aquatic vegetation. Prefers marshes with scattered bushes or other woody growth. Less commonly found in coastal brackish marshes and mangrove swamps. Usually is hidden in tall vegetation, and slips away by walking or climbing through reeds or even by running through them 2 to 3 feet above water, grasping a single reed or several in each foot.

SPECIAL HABITAT REQUIREMENTS: Freshwater wetlands surrounded by tall aquatic vegetation.

NEST: Nests singly in dense stands of emergent vegetation 6 to 24 inches above water that is 3 to 38 inches deep, and close to open water. Uses natural clump of the previous year's vegetation to form the foundation of the nest. Occasionally nests in bushes, and more rarely, on the ground.

FOOD: Feeds on the open water side of emergents, and captures small fish. Also takes frogs, tadpoles, salamanders, leeches, mollusks, crustaceans, insects, lizards, slugs, and occasionally small mammals.

REFERENCES: Low and Mansell 1983, Palmer 1962, Terres 1980, Weller 1961.

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