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Least Bittern

Ixobrychus exilis

Length: 13 inches Wingspan: 18 inches Seasonality: Summer / Migrant
ID Keys: Dark back and tail, white underparts with buffy streaks, buff head and neck, black crown.

Least Bittern - Ixobrychus exilisA shy, secretive bird of dense weedy marshes and sloughs, and one of the smallest of the world's herons. Rather than wading like most of the herons, the Least Bittern uses its long toes to clamber around emergent wetland vegetation, just above the water's surface.  The Least Bittern is one of multiple similar species to "freeze" when startled, raising its head and swaying back and forth in an attempt to blend in with the swaying marsh vegetation.

Habitat: Freshwater marshes and sloughs with dense emergent wetland vegetation. 

Diet: Mostly small fish and large insects.  Also crustaceans, amphibians, small rodents, and small snakes.

Behavior: Least Bitterns cling to vegetation stems with their feet, staying just above the water's surface, searching for prey and thrusting the bill downwards to grab prey items when spotted.

Nesting:  June and July

Song: Least Bittern Song, also Least Bittern Call

Migration: Summers throughout most the eastern U.S. and in scattered locations in the West.  Winters in the extreme southern U.S., Mexico, and Central America.

Interactive eBird map: Click here to access an interactive eBird map of Least Bittern sightings

Similar Species: Green Heron

Conservation Status: In decline in some areas due to habitat loss and pesticide runoff.

Further Information: 1) USGS Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter, Least Bittern

2) Audubon Guide - Least Bittern

3) Least Bittern

Photo Information: Photo taken near Pierre by Doug Backlund


Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Least Bittern - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Uncommon summer breeding resident and migrant in the east.  Rare in the west.

Additional Least Bittern Photos (coming soon!)