Meet the Marsh Birds That Live Among the Reeds

Updated: May 22, 2024

Discover seven types of North American marsh birds known for hiding among the lush vegetation of muddy wetlands.

Look and Listen for Marsh Birds in Wetlands

Common Yellowthroat female Nest D 28325Steve and Dave Maslowski
Female common yellowthroat with nestlings

Though some are secretive and others boisterous, there’s one thing that all marsh birds have in common: a need for a specialized wetland for breeding, nesting and rearing young.

Marshes are low lying, mostly open ground covered for long periods by shallow fresh-, salt- or brackish water, and filled with vegetation ranging from low-growing grasses to 10-foot-tall cattails. Here, birds can hide in the dense vertical vegetation, hunt in shallow waters, build nests over water and project their unique calls.

“A lot of marsh birds have a deep voice that does a better job of carrying through dense vegetation,” says Auriel Fournier, director of the Stephen A. Forbes Biological Station, a part of the Illinois Natural History Survey, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Auriel’s top tips for spotting these birds during breeding season in spring and summer: Visit at dawn or dusk when marsh birds are at their loudest, hit spots with boardwalks that provide easy access into the marsh and blend in. “Be quiet and still, and let the wetland do whatever it was doing before you walked down the boardwalk,” she says. Here are seven birds to look for the next time you head out to a marshy area.

Solitary American Bittern

American Bittern 2 Young And Egg D 17199kSteve and Dave Maslowski
Adult American bittern with young and disguising itself in reeds

You may hear this solitary bird’s pumper-lunk echoes before spotting one hunting in dim light near freshwater marsh edges. Otherwise, this stocky, medium-sized heron uses its “camouflage-driven stripy exterior” to blend in with dense vegetation, according to Auriel.

It may build hammock-style nests suspended over water. “When there’s water underneath the nest, there are a lot fewer mammals that will try to eat the eggs,” Auriel says. The American bittern is found in the northern half of the United States during the summer and areas along the West and East Coasts and the Gulf of Mexico during winter.

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Curious Common Yellowthroat

Common yellowthroat marsh 8971Marie Read
Male common yellowthroat

If you hear the witchety-witchety-witchety of a male common yellowthroat, respond with a pishing sound and you might draw out this inquisitive bird.

Inhabiting the edges of marshes, the small, energetic yellow-and-olive bird sports a black mask across its face. Easy to spot clutching reeds and cattails from coast to coast, they live in thick vegetation in a wide range of wet habitats, including marshes, across much of the U.S.

The female is mostly brown and maskless, but she does share a similar yet often slightly duller yellow coloring around the throat as the male. She builds an open-cup nest on or near the ground amid sedges, grasses, reeds and cattails.

Graceful Black-Necked Stilt

Black Necked StiltRichard Buquoi
Black-necked stilt with young

Easy to identify by its long red legs and black-and-white coloring, the black-necked stilt shriek a high-pitched yap or keek, dive at predators or feign a broken wing to attract predators away from the nest. Wading in shallow waters to stalk their prey, they can be found across fresh or salty marshes in the western and southern U.S.

The foot-tall stilts scrape a depression in dirt and line it with grasses, pebbles and shells before building a nest on top.

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Abundant Sora Rail

Sora rail Foraging In Marsh, Texas CoastLarry Ditto
Sora foraging in marsh, Texas coast

Bountiful, vocal and territorial, sora are among the more visible members of the famously elusive rail family. Common across much of North America, sora emit a descending whinny call, which slows down at the end, as they protect their well-concealed nests built atop mounds of vegetation or attached to plant stems.

On the wetland edges, look for the quail-sized sora searching with their stubby yellow bill for aquatic invertebrates or seeds from wetland plants. And look for them swimming either above or below the water.

“It’s a predator-avoidance thing,” says Auriel, whose recent doctoral studies focused on the fall migration ecology of rails. “If they get startled, they’ll go under water, then pop up and be like, ‘Is the predator gone?’ ”

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Bright Yellow-Headed Blackbird

Yellow Headed BlackbirdGail Buquoi
Male yellow-headed blackbird

Equally easy to spot and hear, yellow-headed blackbirds nest in colonies in freshwater marshes across western North America. The males’ harsh, incessant chorus of oka-wee-wee and kruck calls have been described as a rusty gate opening.

Males sport bold yellow heads and chests, along with white wing patches in flight. This species’ males may have as many as five mates at a time. Smaller, sooty brown females with yellow on their faces and chests build cup-shaped nests lashed to reeds, cattails and other bulrushes over water.

The Elegant Egrets

Great Egret At Sunrise On Wetlands, marsh birdsTeresa Kopec/Getty Images
Great egret

Look for these long-legged birds wading through high grasses or hunting for aquatic creatures in shallow water. Egrets nest in colonies, with males scoping out a nest site in a tree, vines or thick undergrowth. They’re quiet except on breeding sites, where their calls ranged from harsh squawks to dry croaks.

The taller great egret and the smaller snowy egret are both white, found across the U.S. and grow wispy feathers during mating season. The rusty-colored, less common reddish egret is limited in range to spots around the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.

“Reddish egrets are a species with a lot of conservation concern,” Auriel says.

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Raucous Red-Winged Blackbird

Redwinged blackbird Male Kq7s0402, mSteve and Dave Maslowski
Male red-winged blackbird

Abundant and active in marshes during breeding season, male red-winged blackbirds claim territory by flashing their scarlet field marks and issuing a full-throated conk-la-ree from atop tall vegetation. Walk with caution though, as they may swoop down on you if you venture too close.

Redwinged Blackbird Nest With Eggs marsh birds D10269Steve and Dave Maslowski
Red-winged blackbird nest with eggs

Females are brownish and can be difficult to see when on their cup-shaped nests. Though red-winged blackbirds’ nests are typically found low, these birds sometimes construct them in a shrub or tree. When threatened, females issue their own scolding calls.

About the Expert

Auriel Fournier is director of the Stephen A. Forbes Biological Station, a part of the Illinois Natural History Survey, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. As an associate research scientist and wetland bird ecologist, she focuses her research on managing wetlands for birds, including marsh birds. Auriel completed her doctorate in 2017, studying the fall migration ecology of rails with the Arkansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Arkansas.