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Botaurus stellaris (Eurasian bittern, Great bittern, Bittern) 

Grootrietreier [Afrikaans]; Roerdomp [Afrikaans]; Umabu [Zulu]; Shivo [Kwangali]; Khoiti-mohlaka [South Sotho]; Kgapu [Tswana]; Roerdomp [Dutch]; Butor étoilé [French]; Große rohrdommel [German]; Abetouro [Portuguese]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora > Aves (birds) > Order: Ciconiiformes > Family: Ardeidae

Botaurus stellaris (Eurasian bittern, Great bittern, Bittern) Botaurus stellaris (Eurasian bittern, Great bittern, Bittern) 

Eurasian bittern, Italy. [photo Luca Ghiraldi ©]

Eurasian bittern, Yorkshire, England. [photo Tim Stenton ©]

Distribution and habitat

Occurs from the UK and southern Scandinavia to Siberia, Japan, Spain, Turkey and north-western and sub-Saharan Africa. In southern Africa, it is rare in northern Botswana and the Caprivi Strip (Namibia), with a few isolated populations in South Africa and eastern Zimbabwe. It generally favours tall, dense emergent vegetation in large, seasonal or permanent wetlands. It also occupies Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) swamps, flooded grassland and rice fields.

Distribution of Eurasian bittern in southern Africa, based on statistical smoothing of the records from first SA Bird Atlas Project (© Animal Demography unit, University of Cape Town; smoothing by Birgit Erni and Francesca Little). Colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common). See here for the latest distribution from the SABAP2.  

Movements and migrations

Little known, although it is definitely not a resident in any part of its distribution range, which suggests that it might be locally migratory.


It mainly eats fish, frogs and aquatic invertebrates, doing most of its foraging by standing still or wading through shallow water, within the effective cover of reeds and marsh plants.


  • Its breeding habits have barely been studied in southern Africa, so much of the following information comes from other parts of the world.
  • Monogamous or polygynous solitary nester, as one male may have up to about five mates. It is highly territorial - males fight aerially in an attempt to stab each other, sometimes resulting in death.
  • The nest is a shallow, saucer-shaped platform of sedges, reed stems, grass and rushes, typically placed in dense vegetation close to to the water surface.
  • Egg-laying season is from September-March.
  • It lays 2-4 eggs, which are incubated solely by the female for about 25-28 days.
  • The chicks are fed by the female with food provided by the male, learning to fly at roughly 50-55 days old.


Critically endangered in South Africa, as it has an extremely small population in the country, largely due to the draining of wetlands, disruption of stream flow and other types of human disturbance. It was previously common across much of southern Africa, excluding the most arid areas, but it now has an estimated population of just 233-344 birds in the region.


  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.