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Acquired 1879

Great Bitterns in Ireland

The bittern was a common bird in Ireland until the mid-19th century. It used to live here all year round but is a rare winter visitor nowadays.

By Ana Queiros

Bitterns are related to herons and live on freshwater wetlands. Their extinction in Ireland is linked to loss of habitat and human persecution.

Description of the specimen

The specimen consists of a mounted piece of taxidermy and was purchased for £2 in 1879 from Williams & Son, 2 Dame Street.

The label found with this specimen reads:

“Bittern; Botaurus stellaris, (Linn.); Murrouh of Wicklow”

Where do bitterns live?

Great bitterns can be found throughout Europe and Asia and some parts of Africa. They live in wetlands with dense and undisturbed reed beds. This habitat is particularly important during breeding season which occurs in Spring and Summer in Europe.

Bitterns are very secretive and difficult to spot because of their speckled plumage and also because they stretch their neck upright when disturbed in order to blend into the reed beds. The best time to see them is at dusk when they are most active and hunting for food. Their favourite food is eels but they also eat other fish, frogs and insects and even small mammals.

Where does the name come from?

The bittern got its name from the male’s booming call which resembles the bawling of a bull. The English word originates from the French butor which in turn derives from the Latin word for sound – bur, and the old French word for bull – tor.

The scientific name Botaurus stellaris is also linked to the bull. The first name is similar to the Latin name for domestic cattle – Bos taurus – meaning ox and bull. The second name means starry and refers to the bittern’s speckled plumage.

Bitterns in Ireland

Bitterns were common in Ireland up to the middle of the 19th century. Proof of this is in the names of places such as Curraghbonaun in Sligo and Inishbobunnan in Mayo which include the Irish word for bittern – bonnan or bunnan.

They were also a source of inspiration for writers and poets and many have celebrated the bittern in their works. One famous poem is ‘The Yellow Bittern’ (An Bonnán Buí) written by Mac Ghiolla Gunna in the 18th century.

Why did they become extinct in Ireland?

Bitterns became rarer in Ireland and stopped breeding here in the 1840s. Habitat reduction was the main cause for their disappearance, as bogs and marshes were drained for agricultural purposes. The reduction in the traditional use of reeds also had an impact, since the harvesting of reeds is important for the maintenance of this fragile habitat.

Hunting also contributed for the reduction in bittern population. Their meat was considered a delicacy and they were thought to have healing qualities. When they became rare they were shot as trophies for stuffing and displaying.

Are they coming back?

There have been a few sightings of bitterns in recent years, particularly in winter. These are visiting birds coming from continental Europe and Britain to escape the cold winters and are not breeding here.

Some of the recommendations from the European Action Plan for the great bittern are the raising of water levels, improving water quality and cutting reeds regularly. Conservation efforts to provide suitable habitat for visiting birds are crucial if the bittern is to return to Ireland and breed here.

Learn more

This particular specimen is part of our research collection and is not on exhibition. However, there are two specimens of great bittern on display in the National Museum of Ireland - Natural History – one on the ground floor and the other on the first floor. You can also see other closely related birds such as herons and little bitterns.


BirdLife International (2014) Species factsheet: Botaurus stellaris. Online at

Eric Dempsey and Michael O’Clery (1993) The Complete Guide to Ireland’s Birds. Gill & Macmillan. Dublin.

Gordon D’Arcy (1981) The Guide to the Birds of Ireland. Irish Wildlife Publications, Dublin.

Gordon D’Arcy (1999) Ireland’s Lost Birds. Four Courts Press, Dublin.


Great Bitterns in Ireland is located at:
In Storage

Previous artefact:

Glass Cable Beads from Co. Antrim

Next artefact:

Greek Porphyry from Viking Dublin

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