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British bitterns have a voice again

October 2019

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Bitterns have Britain’s loudest call

With so much worrying news around, it is great that the RSPB has just made a really exciting announcement.

Bitterns, Britain’s loudest bird, are making a strong comeback. This is actually bigger news than it seems, for this wonderful but elusive bird has been battling extinction for decades. The bird used to be prized as a medieval banquet dish, and then it was subsequently hit by an ongoing loss of its natural habitat. These included natural reed beds on the water’s edge, where bitterns make their homes, looking for fish and insects. By 1870, the bird had disappeared from Britain completely.

For a short while it made a bit of a come back, but then again by 1997 they were pretty well on the brink of total extinction. Numbers had dropped to just 11 males.

Now, thanks to funding and the efforts of experts and keen supporters, the RSPB is now celebrating the bitterns’ best year ever since records began.

Over 100 male bittems have been recorded on the charity’s reserves for the first time, and a total of almost 200 across the UK.

The bittern is not one of the most familiar birds with British bird lovers. This is probably because of their recent low numbers plus the fact that they spend most of their time hiding in dense stands of reed making them virtually impossible to spot. They are very well camouflaged, with a charming but pale, buffy-brown plumage that fades well into tall reed beds.

They do have a very loud voice though, which is a good thing as, being so elusive, researchers often resort to counting them by the sound of the male’s resounding call.

This very distinctive deep booming call is made when the male bittern inflates his esophagus with almost violent body contortions. Opening and closing his bill it is as if he is lunging for flying insects, and then he uses his stored air to unleash his voice. During spring, it can be heard over 3 miles away. You can hear its deep boom at:

Simon Wotton, RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist, said: “Bitterns are one of our most charismatic birds. Their astonishing recovery from the brink of extinction is a real conservation success story and example of what is possible through targeted efforts to restore wildlife habitat.

“It’s a delight to hear their distinctive booming call echoing across the reedbeds every year as more and more bitterns are making new or restored wetlands their home.”

The RSPB says that since 2006, there has been a year-on-year increase in the number of bitterns making their home in Britain. This year numbers reached record levels once more with 198 males recorded at 89 sites. This compares to 188 at 82 sites in 2018.

They say that the legal safeguards in place within Special Protection Areas have been crucial to the success as nests made in non protected areas are subject to damage and destruction.

If you would like to try and see one of these elusive birds, the best places are probably at the RSPB nature reserves in Somerset, East Anglia and in Yorkshire. 

To find a reserve close to you, visit

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