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A bittern is a wading marsh bird in the heron family. The birds can be found all over the world, inhabiting wetlands and other watery areas and eating the fauna that they find. The bittern is a generally shy, solitary animal, and it can be unusual to see one, but the loud booming call of the male can inform birdwatchers that bitterns are in the area, even if unseen. Some animal parks and reserves also keep bitterns, and they can sometimes be seen in zoos as well.
The name for the birds comes from the Old French butor, which is believed to have been derived from the Latin butionem, for “bittern” and taurus for “bull.” Allegedly, the birds were given this Latin name because of their characteristic loud cries. Two genera collectively make up the bitterns. The first genus, Botaurus, comprises larger bitterns such as the Great Bittern and American Bittern. Smaller bitterns like the Least Bittern, Cinnamon Bittern, and Dwarf Bittern are in the second genus, Ixobrychus. All told, around 14 living bittern species have been identified on every continent except Antarctica.
At first glance, a bittern might look like a small heron. The birds do have a few distinguishing differences, however. Bitterns have shorter necks than herons do, and they also have more compact, stocky bodies. Their plumage tends to be mottled brown in color, ideally suited to camouflage among the reeds and grasses of their wetland habitat. Like herons, bitterns have long beaks well suited to digging through mud and other materials for food.
Fish, frogs, and other small swamp animals comprise the bulk of a bittern's diet. Like herons, bitterns may stand in water imitating reeds while they hunt. When flying, bitterns also retract their necks, rather than stretching them out as some birds do. Many bittern species are also migratory, and some larger bitterns are treated as game birds in several regions of the world.
Healthy wetlands may be able to sustain a reasonable bittern population, and the birds may be used as an index species to asses the health of the environment. A decline in the number of bitterns around a wetland can suggest that they are having difficulty finding food or habitat, which generally indicates an ecological imbalance. Drastic alterations in water level can also have an impact on bitterns, as they tend to nest low to the ground in wetlands, and flooding can destroy a nest.