American bittern
Botaurus lentiginosus
ITIS Species Code:   174856         NatureServ Element Code:   ABNGA01020
NatureServe Global Rank: 
NatureServe State (NC) Rank: 
Federal Status: 
NC State Status: 
Southern Blue Ridge:  17 Southern Piedmont:  17 South Atl. Coastal Plain:  n/a
Land Unit

US Fish & Wildlife Service
US Forest Service
US National Park Service
US Department of Defense
NC State Parks
NC University System
NC Wildlife Res. Com.
NC Forest Service
NC Div. of Coastal Mgmt.
Local Governments
Non-Governmental Org.
Other Public Lands
Private Lands

GAP Status 1-2
All Protected Lands




% of Dist. on
Prot. Lands

49.5 %
1.2 %
16.7 %
15.4 %
0.8 %
0.0 %
11.4 %
0.0 %
1.6 %
3.3 %
3.3 %
0.0 %
< 0.1 %

77.5 %
% of Dist. on
All Lands

18.4 %
0.4 %
6.2 %
5.7 %
0.3 %
0.0 %
4.3 %
0.0 %
0.6 %
< 0.1 %
1.2 %
0.0 %
62.8 %

28.8 %
Breeds rarely to occasionally across the state. Probably more common toward the coast, but has been observed during the breeding season westward even to the high elevations of the mountains (Fussell 1994, Potter et al. 1980, Stupka 1963).

Breeds in extensive wetlands having a combination of open shallow water and dense emergent vegetation (Kaufman 1996), such as marshes, bogs, and swamps. Will also breed in brackish and salt tidal marshes and meadows (Fussell 1994, Palmer 1962).

The nest is usually built in dense vegetation, either on dry ground or in emergent vegetation just above shallow or occasionally deep water (Ehrlich et al. 1988), but it can also be on dry ground in a grassy meadow or on a floating island of a lake (Palmer 1962). Forages by wading, often at the water's edge (Kaufman 1996). Will perch on cattails and stumps, but rarely perches in trees (Palmer 1962).


BREEDING: Primarily large freshwater and (less often) brackish marshes, including lake and pond edges where cattails, sedges, or bulrushes are plentiful and marshes where there are patches of open water and aquatic-bed vegetation. Occurs also in other areas with dense herbaceous cover, such as shrubby marshes, bogs, wet meadows, and, rarely, hayfields (Brewer et al. 1991). Readily uses wetlands created by impoundments. Wetlands of 2.5 ha or more may support nesting; smaller wetlands may serve as alternate foraging sites (Gibbs and Melvin 1992). See Hanowski and Niemi (1990) for a quantitative study of habitat in Minnesota.

Nests primarily in inland freshwater wetlands, sometimes in tidal marshes or in sparsely vegetated wetlands or dry grassy uplands. Breeding occurs primarily in wetlands with tall emergent vegetation. Sparsely vegetated wetlands and dry grassy uplands are sometimes used, as are tidal marshes in some areas (Stewart and Robbins 1958, Swift 1987). In comparison to the sympatric least bittern (IXOBRYCHUS EXILIS), uses a wider variety of wetland cover types, less densely vegetated sites, shallower water depths, and primarily freshwater habitats.

Wetlands used in Maine were dominated by emergent and aquatic-bed (floating-leaved and submergent) vegetation, had a high diversity of vegetative life forms, and a high degree of cover/water interspersion (Gibbs et al. in press; Gibbs and Melvin 1990). Portions of wetlands used were dominated by sedges (CAREX spp.), broad-leaved cattail (TYPHA LATIFOLIA), and ericaceous shrubs. In a study of Quebec lakes, lakes with patches of floating-leaved plants, emergent growth along shorelines, and abundant amphibian populations were preferred (DesGranges and Houde 1989).

At Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin, responded to tape-recorded calls only from shallow water cattail and dry cattail habitats and seemed to avoid deepwater cattails (Manci and Rusch 1988). At moist soil impoundments in Missouri, associated with water depths of less than 10 cm and vegetative cover characterized as 'rank, dense, or sparse.' Habitat use was not associated with 'open' or 'short' vegetative cover or water of depths of greater than 10 cm (Fredrickson and Reid 1986). In Minnesota, seven breeding territories had a mean water depth of 10 cm, vegetation height of 1.3 m, and density of sedge and grass stems of 117 stems/m squared (Hanowski and Niemi 1986).

NON-BREEDING: Migrant bitterns were flushed at 25 sites during spring in Missouri with mean water depth of 26 cm, vegetation height of 63 cm, and stem density of 157 stems/m squared. Characteristics of 35 flush sites in fall were similar, except that vegetation was taller (118 cm) (Reid 1989). In areas where temperatures stay above freezing and waters remain open, especially in coastal regions where the ocean moderates climate (Root 1988). Wintering habitat is much like breeding habitat, and overwintering populations are heavily dependent on managed wetland areas, such as those occurring at wildlife refuges (Root 1988). Occasionally occurs in habitats that are more open than the usual ones. Overwintering occasionally takes place in brackish coastal marshes (Hancock and Kushlan 1984).

Occupied Landcover Map Units:
Code NameDescription NC Natural Heritage Program Equivalent
3 Tidal Marsh Fresh and brackish tidal marshes, including cord grass, wild rice, sawgrass and needlerush alliances. Brackish Marsh, Interdune pond, Maritime wet grassland
124 Maritime Scrubs and Tidal Shrublands Coastal shrubs including wax-myrtle, swamp rose, alder, yaupon, and greenbriar. Maritime Shrubs, Salt Shrub
372 Interdune Herbaceous Wetlands Dune swales with permanently flooded to intermittently exposed hydrology. Species composition depends on salinity and can include cut grass, spike-rush, mosquito fern, and hornwort. Interdune Pond, Maritime Wet Grasslands
371 Maritime Grasslands Dune grass community consisting of sea oats and beach grasses. Dune grass, Maritime dry grassland
380 Coastal Plain Fresh Water Emergent Emergent vegetation in fresh water seepage bogs, ponds and riverbeds of the coastal plain. Includes alliances dominated by sedges, eelgrass, as well as cane found in unforested cane-brakes. Small Depression Pond, Sandhill Seep, Floodplain Pool, Unforested Floodplain Canebrake, Riverscour Prairies, Vernal Pools
173 Coastal Plain Riverbank Shrubs Shrub dominated riverbanks, commonly dominated by willows and/or alders. Sand and Mud Bar
238 Piedmont/Mountain Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Seasonally to permanently flooded areas with aquatic vegetation. Waterlily, pondweed, hydrilla smartweed are a few of the species that can occur. Piedmont/Mountain Semipermanent Impoundment (in part)
239 Piedmont/Mountain Emergent Vegetation Emergent vegetation of all wetland hydrologies. Sites would commonly support species such as tussock sedge, rushs, and cattail alliances. Rocky Bar and Shore (in part)
267 Riverbank Shrublands Riverside shrubs with temporarily flooded hydrologies. Found in the both the Mountains and Piedmont. Containing dominants such as smooth alder and a Carolina or black willows. Sand and Mud Bar
269 Floodplain Wet Shrublands Saturated shrublands of the Piedmont, includes buttonbush, swamp-loosestrife, decodon and alders. Piedmont/mountain Semipermanent Impoundment
205 Agricultural Pasture/Hay and Natural Herbaceous Farm fields used for pasture grass or hay production, as well as old fields dominated by native and exotic grasses. No equivalent
View Entire Landcover Legend
Additional Spatial Constraints:
Exclude all area outside of known range.
Exclude all land greater than 50 meters from an open water feature.
Exclude all land greater than 50 meters from wet vegetation.
Exclude areas of intensive human activity including moderately to highly developed landscapes.
Gibbs, J.P., and S.M. Melvin. 1992. American bittern, BOTAURUS LENTIGINOSUS. Pages 51-69 in K.J. Schneider and D.M. Pence, editors. Migratory nongame birds of management concern in the Northeast. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Newton Corner, Massachusett

Carter, M., G. Fenwick, C. Hunter, D. Pashley, D. Petit, J. Price, and J. Trapp. 1996. Watchlist 1996:For the future. Field Notes 50(3):238-240.

Ehrlich, P.R., D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1992. Birds in jeopardy:the imperiled and extinct birds of the United States and Canada, including Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California. 259 pp.

Herkert, J. R., editor. 1992. Endangered and threatened species of Illinois:status and distribution. Vol. 2:Animals. Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board. iv + 142 pp.

Reid, F. A. 1989. Differential habitat use by waterbirds in a managed wetland complex. University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri. Ph.D. dissertation. 243 pp.

Swift, B. L. 1987. An analysis of avian breeding habitats in Hudson river tidal marshes. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Fish and Wildlife, Delmar, New York. Unpublished report. 62 pp.

Hands, H.M., R.D. Drobney, and M.R. Ryan. 1989. Status of the American bittern in the northcentral United States. Missouri Coop. Fish Wildl. Res. Unit Rep. 13 pp.

Fussell, J.O. III. 1994. A birderís guide to coastal North Carolina. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.

Hancock, J., and J. Kushlan. 1984. The Herons Handbook. Croom Helm, Ltd., Kent, England. 288 pp.

Kaufman K. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Desgranges, J. L., and B. Houde. 1989. Effects of acidity and other environmental parameters on the distribution of lacustrine birds in Quebec. In J. L. DesGranges (editor) Studies of the Effects of Acidification on Aquatic Wildlife in Canada:Lacustrine B

Stupka A 1963. Notes on the birds of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press.

Stewart, R.E., and C.S. Robbins. 1958. Birds of Maryland and the District of Columbia. North American Fauna No. 62. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 401 pp.

Palmer, R. S. (editor). 1962. Handbook of North American birds. Vol. 1. Loons through flamingos. Yale University Press, New Haven. 567 pp.

Hanowski, J.M., and G.J. Niemi. 1990. An approach for quantifying habitat characteristics for rare wetland birds. Pages 51-56 in Mitchell et al., editors. Ecosystem management:rare species and significant habitats. New York State Museum Bulletin 471.

Payne, R. B., and C. J. Risley. 1976. Systematics and evolutionary relationships among the herons (Ardeidae). Univ. Michigan Mus. Zool., Misc. Publ. No. 150. 115 pp.

Cogswell, H.L. 1977. Water birds of California. Univ. California Press, Berkeley. 399 pp.

Hancock, J., and H. Elliot. 1978. The herons of the world. Harper and Row, New York.

Harrison, H.H. 1979. A field guide to western birds' nests. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 279 pp.

Potter, E. F., J. F. Parnell, and R. P. Teulings. 1980. Birds of the Carolinas. Univ. North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill. 408 pp.

Terres, J.K. 1980. The Audubon Society encyclopedia of North American birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Brown, M., and J.J. Dinsmore. 1986. Implications of marsh size and isolation for marsh bird management. Journal of Wildlife Management 50:392-397.

American Ornithologists' Union (AOU), Committee on Classification and Nomenclature. 1983. Check-list of North American Birds. Sixth Edition. American Ornithologists' Union, Allen Press, Inc., Lawrence, Kansas.

National Geographic Society (NGS). 1983. Field guide to the birds of North America. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.

Fredrickson, L.H., and F.A. Reid. 1986. Wetlands and riparian habitats:a nongame management overview. Pages 59-96 in J.B. Hale, L.B. Best, and R. L. Clawson, (eds.) Management of nongame wildlife in the Midwest:a developing art. Proc. Symp. 47th Midwest F

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Migratory Bird Management. 1987. Migratory nongame birds of management concern in the United States:the 1987 list.

Ehrlich, P.R., D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder's handbook:a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Shuster, Inc., New York. xxx + 785 pp.

Root, T. 1988. Atlas of wintering North American birds:An analysis of Christmas Bird Count data. University of Chicago Press. 336 pp.

Brewer, R., G.A. McPeek, and R.J. Adams, Jr. 1991. The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Michigan. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, Michigan. xvii + 594 pp.

10 March 2005
This data was compiled and/or developed by the North Carolina GAP Analysis Project.

For more information please contact them at:
NC-GAP Analysis Project
Dept. of Zoology, NCSU
Campus Box 7617
Raleigh, NC 27695-7617
(919) 513-2853