Eurasian bittern

Eurasian bittern

Great bittern

Botaurus stellaris
g oz 
cm inch 
cm inch 

The Eurasian bittern or great bittern (Botaurus stellaris ) is a wading bird in the bittern subfamily (Botaurinae) of the heron family Ardeidae. There are two subspecies, the northern race (B. s. stellaris ) breeding in parts of Europe and across the Palearctic, as well as on the northern coast of Africa, while the southern race (B. s. capensis ) is endemic to parts of southern Africa. It is a secretive bird, seldom seen in the open as it prefers to skulk in reed beds and thick vegetation near water bodies. Its presence is apparent in the spring, when the booming call of the male during the breeding season can be heard. It feeds on fish, small mammals, fledgling birds, amphibians, crustaceans and insects.

Show More

The nest is usually built among reeds at the edge of bodies of water. The female incubates the clutch of eggs and feeds the young chicks, which leave the nest when about two weeks old. She continues to care for them until they are fully fledged some six weeks later.

With its specific habitat requirements and the general reduction in wetlands across its range, the population is thought to be in decline globally. However the decline is slow, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature has assessed its overall conservation status as being of "least concern". Nevertheless, some local populations are at risk and the population of the southern race has declined more dramatically and is cause for concern. In the United Kingdom it is one of the most threatened of all bird species.

Show Less

In literature

Thomas Bewick records that the bittern "was formerly held in much estimation at the tables of the great".


















Partial Migrant


starts with


Bitterns are thickset herons with bright, pale, buffy-brown plumage covered with dark streaks and bars As its alternate name suggests, this species is the largest of the bitterns, with males being rather larger than females. The Eurasian or great bittern is 69–81 cm (27–32 in) in length, with a 100–130 cm (40–50 in) wingspan and a body mass of 0.87–1.94 kg (1 lb 14+1⁄2 oz – 4 lb 4+1⁄2 oz).

Show More

The crown and nape are black, with the individual feathers rather long and loosely arranged, tipped with buff narrowly barred with black. The sides of the head and neck are a more uniform tawny-buff, irregularly barred with black. The mantle, scapulars and back are of a similar colour but are more heavily barred, the individual feathers having black centres and barring. The head has a yellowish-buff superciliary stripe and a brownish-black moustachial stripe. The sides of the neck are a rusty-brown with faint barring. The chin and throat are buff, the central feathers on the throat having longitudinal stripes of rusty-brown. The breast and belly are yellowish-buff, with broad stripes of brown at the side and narrow stripes in the centre. The tail is rusty-buff with black streaks in the centre and black mottling near the edge. The wings are pale rusty-brown irregularly barred, streaked and mottled with black. The plumage has a loose texture, and elongated feathers on the crown, neck and breast can be erected. The powerful bill is greenish-yellow with a darker tip to the upper mandible. The eye has a yellow iris and is surrounded by a ring of greenish or bluish bare skin. The legs and feet are greenish, with some yellow on the tarsal joint and yellow soles to the feet. Juveniles have similar plumage to adults but are somewhat paler with less distinct markings.

Show Less



The breeding range of B. s. stellaris extends across temperate parts of Europe and Asia from the British Isles, Sweden and Finland eastwards to Sakhalin Island in eastern Siberia and Hokkaido Island in Japan. The bird's northern extent of occurrence is around 57°N in the Ural Mountains and 64°N in eastern Siberia. Its southern limit is the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, Iran, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Hebei Province in northern China. Small resident populations also breed in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. It typically inhabits reed beds (Phragmites ) and swamps, as well as lakes, lagoons and sluggish rivers fringed by rank vegetation. It sometimes nests by ponds in agricultural areas, and even quite near habitations where suitable habitat exists, but for preference, chooses large reed beds of at least 20 hectares (50 acres) in which to breed.

Show More

Some populations are sedentary and stay in the same areas throughout the year. More northerly populations usually migrate to warmer regions but some birds often remain; birds in northern Europe tend to move south and west to southern Europe, northern and central Africa, and northern Asian birds migrate to parts of the Arabian peninsula, the Indian sub-continent, and the provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Inner Mongolia in eastern China. Outside the breeding season it has less restrictive habitat requirements, and as well as living in reed beds, it visits rice fields, watercress beds, fish farms, gravel pits, sewage works, ditches, flooded areas and marshes.

The subspecies B. s. capensis is endemic to southern Africa, where it is found sparingly in marshes near the east coast, the Okavango Delta and the upland foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains. This population is sedentary.

Show Less
Eurasian bittern habitat map

Climate zones

Eurasian bittern habitat map
Eurasian bittern
Attribution License

Habits and Lifestyle

Usually solitary, the Eurasian bittern forages in reed beds, walking stealthily or remaining still above a body of water where prey may occur. It is a shy bird, and if disturbed, often points its bill directly upwards and freezes in that position, causing its cryptic plumage to blend into the surrounding reeds, an action known as bitterning. While in this position, the shield of elongated feathers on throat and breast droop downwards and hide the neck, so that the outline of the head and body is obscured. Sometimes it resorts to applying powder down produced by patches of specialist down feathers at the side of its breast. This white dusty material seems to help it to rid its head and neck of slime after feeding on eels. It then removes the excess powder by scratching vigorously before applying preen oil from the gland at the base of its tail.

Show More

The bird has a secretive nature, keeping largely hidden in the reeds and coarse vegetation. Occasionally, especially in hard winter weather, it stands in the open beside the water's edge, although usually close to cover to facilitate a hasty retreat. In flight, its wings can be seen to be broad and rounded, and its legs trail behind it in typical heron fashion. Its neck is extended when it takes off, but is retracted when it has picked up speed. It seldom flies however, except when feeding young, preferring to move through the vegetation stealthily on foot. Its gait is slow and deliberate and it can clamber over reeds by gripping several at a time with its toes. It is most active at dawn and dusk, but also sometimes forages by day.

Eurasian bitterns feed on fish, small mammals, amphibians and invertebrates, hunting along the reed margins in shallow water. British records include eels up to 35 cm (14 in) and other fish, mice and voles, small birds and fledglings, frogs, newts, crabs, shrimps, molluscs, spiders and insects. In continental Europe, members of over twenty families of beetle are eaten, as well as dragonflies, bees, grasshoppers and earwigs. Some vegetable matter such as aquatic plants is also consumed.

Males are polygamous, mating with up to five females. The nest is built in the previous year's standing reeds and consists of an untidy platform some 30 cm (12 in) across. It may be on a tussock surrounded by water or on matted roots close to water and is built by the female using bits of reed, sedges and grass stalks, with a lining of finer fragments. The eggs average 50 by 40 mm (2 by 1+1⁄2 in) in size and are non-glossy, olive-brown, with some darker speckling at the broader end. Four to six eggs are laid in late March and April and incubated by the female for about twenty-six days. After hatching, the chicks spend about two weeks in the nest before leaving to swim amongst the reeds. The female rears them without help from the male, regurgitating food into the nest from her crop, the young seizing her bill and pulling it down. They become fully fledged at about eight weeks.

Show Less
Seasonal behavior
Bird's call

Mating Habits

50 to 55 days


Population number

The Eurasian bittern has a very wide range and a large total population, estimated to be 110,000 to 340,000 individuals. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has assessed its overall conservation status as being of "least concern because although the population trend is downward, the rate of decline is insufficient to justify rating it in a more threatened category. The chief threat the bird faces is destruction of reed beds and drainage and disturbance of its wetland habitats. It is one of the species to which the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) applies. The southern race has suffered catastrophic decline during the 20th century due to wetland degradation and, unlike the northern race, is of high conservation concern.

Show More

In the United Kingdom the species was once thought extinct, but in 1997 there were 11 males and by 2007 an estimated 44 breeding pairs, concentrated mainly in Lancashire and East Anglia. In 2021, 228 breeding males were counted in the United Kingdom, an increase of 19 birds since 2019. The Lancashire population at Leighton Moss RSPB reserve declined in recent decades, while bitterns have been attracted to new reed beds in the West Country. After extensive reedbed restoration, nesting and breeding was observed in north Wales, while in 2020, two pairs successfully bred at Newport Wetlands in Gwent, south Wales. These were the first bitterns to breed in the county in some 250 years. In the 21st century, bitterns are regular winter visitors to the London Wetland Centre, enabling city dwellers to view these scarce birds. In Ireland, it died out as a breeding species in the mid-19th century, but in 2011 a single bird was spotted in County Wexford and there have been a number of subsequent sightings.

Show Less


1. Eurasian bittern Wikipedia article -
2. Eurasian bittern on The IUCN Red List site -
3. Xeno-canto bird call -

More Fascinating Animals to Learn About