America's Most Sought-After Birds

A genuinely gigantic country spanning quite the spectrum of climate zones and terrain, the United States harbors a rich and diverse share of birdlife. This awesome avifauna draws birders from near and far to the cove hardwood forests of Appalachia, the riparian brambles of the Sonoran Desert,  the mangrove channels of South Florida, the high spruce-fir woods of the Rocky Mountains, and beyond to the Alaskan tundra and the Hawaiian rainforests.

Bittern to bobolink, scissor-tailed flycatcher to bristle-thighed curlew, Baltimore oriole to Carolina wren: Every corner of the U.S. has its own coveted cast of feathered quarry.

Ranking the most coveted of said quarry is no easy task, and is likely to start a vigorous argument among connoisseurs of high-powered binoculars and pricey spotting scopes. So consider the following list of prized American birds as a mere sampler-pack, featuring some rare or restricted species as well as some common and widespread—but nonetheless outstanding—ones, and covering as much geographic territory as possible.

Now, this means we’re leaving out a whole mess of other worthy, winged candidates: from the blue-footed booby and Atlantic puffin to the great kiskadee and the golden-cheeked warbler. But hey: That’s the deal when you’ve got such a staggering and stellar lineup of native birds.

The Elegant Trogon

A bird with a dark blue head and a red body sitting among branches in a bush(Opens in a new window) The strikingly red belly of the elegant trogon. Photo by Bernal Fallas

This eccentric bird is the only representative of its otherwise tropical family to regularly show up north of the Mexico border (its small-headed relative the eared trogon occasionally strays into the U.S. as well). Elegant trogons nest in woodpecker holes amid riparian canyon oak-sycamore forests of certain Madrean sky-island ranges: southeastern Arizona’s Chiricahua, Atascosa, Huachuca, and Santa Rita mountains, and also the heights of southwestern New Mexico.

Elegant trogons sport strikingly colored and patterned plumage: The male boasts a green back and head, a ringed eye, and a striking red belly, while the female’s flashiest feature is her white eye patch. These fruit- and insect-eating birds are best seen in spring and summer—listen for their loud, steady, cluck-like tones–though some may hang around in Arizona year-round.

The Whooping Crane

A grey whooping crane with a red head standing near brush in the background, with two yellow ID tags on its legs(Opens in a new window) The whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America. Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton

There’s no taller bird in North America than the magnificent whooping crane, and not too many rarer ones. This heftier of the two native American cranes (the smaller being the much more numerous sandhill) is unmistakable with its snow-white plumage, red-capped head, and imposing, five-foot stature.

Down to a mere 20-odd individuals in the 1940s, whooping cranes have made a modest recovery thanks to dedicated conservation efforts. The sole remaining natural population migrates between Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park, where they nest in pothole marshes, and coastal Texas, where they winter amid the tidelands of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. But several other populations have been reintroduced, including a migratory flock summering in Central Wisconsin and wintering in Florida. Along with spots such as Aransas in winter and Wisconsin’s Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in summer, birders can look for migrating whooping cranes at a number of well-used stopover sites, including Oklahoma’s Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge and Nebraska’s Platte River (where white whoopers come scattered amid noisy hordes of sandhill cranes).

The Prothonotary Warbler

A warbler with a yellow body and dark gray wings sitting on a branch looking upward(Opens in a new window) A prothonotary warbler at Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee. Photo by Joshua J. Cotten

Named after golden robes sported by Roman Catholic papal clerks, the prothonotary warbler is a drop-dead dazzler with its bright, mango-yellow plumage, which contrasts sharply with the songbird’s black eye and bill. Unusual among warblers for its cavity-nesting habits, the prothonotary is also known as the “swamp warbler,” an accurate reflection of its fondness for bottomland hardwood forests and floodplain swamps. The appearance of a blazing songbird in such inherently mysterious realms adds to the appeal of tracking this species down.

The prothonotary warbler’s stronghold is the Southeast, where such sodden habitat abounds, but it ranges as far north as the Upper Midwest along river bottoms.

The Black Swift

Speaking of mystery, here’s a bird shrouded in it. The black swift is something of a phantom, its habits still only partly known and its overall gestalt “elusive.” It’s big as far as normally dainty swifts go, with a wingspan of better than a foot; it’s also strikingly dark-feathered. And it favors far-flung, tough-to-access nesting spots—particularly behind mountain waterfalls and along sea cliffs— in its breeding territory of the western U.S. and southwestern Canada. Finding this scythe-winged bird in its nesting grounds generally means trekking to some rugged and removed country, but keen-eyed observers along its migration flight path may have luck picking out its high-flying form, obviously bigger than other journeying swifts.

The Neotropical wintering geography of the black swift isn’t fully understood, though tagged black swifts nesting in Colorado have been tracked migrating thousands of miles to the Brazilian rainforest.

The American Flamingo

A flamingo wading in shallow waters(Opens in a new window) A flamingo in Fort Myers, Florida. Photo by Ray Hennessy

Recent research has only bolstered the idea that American (or Caribbean) flamingos count the U.S. as part of their traditional domain, counter to the notion that the only such birds showing up in the Southeast are escapees from captivity. Florida, it appears, isn’t just the stomping ground of those plastic lawn flamingos; these extravagant waders once called the Sunshine State home, including as nesting ground.

Flamingo flocks—hailing, likely, from the Bahamas and the Yucatan Peninsula—are periodically seen in Florida Bay along the Everglades National Park coast of far South Florida, and the pink beauties also sometimes show up along the Texas seacoast. Here’s hoping they fully reclaim their stateside territory sooner rather than later.

The Spectacled Eider

A black and white bird with white circles around its eyes, swimming atop the water(Opens in a new window) A male spectacled eider feeding in a tundra pond. Photo by Alaska Region US Fish & Wildlife

With its creamy (female) or white (male) “goggles” around the eyes, the spectacled eider ranks among the loveliest of waterfowl—especially the male in breeding finery, which includes a green head, white back, dark-lined wings, and orange bill. These sea-ducks are only found in Alaska and eastern Russia; they nest on coastal tundra and winter out among leads in the Bering Sea pack-ice. While they dabble for plant matter and insects in tundra ponds, spectacled eiders in their offshore wintertime haunts—which weren’t even discovered until the 1990s—go deep-diving for clams and crustaceans.

Spectacled eiders in Alaska have undergone dramatic population declines. Look for them around Barrow and Nome, around St. Lawrence Island, and on the Colville River Delta.

The Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

A small brown and white owl with piercing yellow eyes sitting on a branch(Opens in a new window) Ask yourself: does it get any cuter than this? Photo by Bernard Dupont

Found widely in Mexico and Central and South America, the ferruginous pygmy-owl has a super-small range in the U.S.: mainly far southern Texas and extreme south-central Arizona. Oak and mesquite scrub here as well as saguaro stands are favored haunts for this little spitfire, which—like its relative the northern pygmy-owl, widespread in the West—is a fierce and feisty hunter despite its diminutive size, tackling good-sized songbirds among other prey.

Songbirds, actually, can be handy for finding this pintsized owl, as they’ll noisily mob any they come across. And here’s a bonus for seeking the ferruginous pygmy-owl: In the same general territory, and to some extent the same habitat, you can also look for its even tinier relative, the elf owl.

The ‘I’iwi

A red bird with black wings and a pink, curved beak(Opens in a new window) The scarlet honeycreeper in all its beaky glory. Photo by Bettina Arrigoni

Among the most exquisitely beautiful and recognizable of the endemic honeycreepers of the Hawaiian Islands, the ‘i’iwi (or scarlet honeycreeper) is a coveted prize among birders journeying to this most remote inhabited archipelago in the world. Both male and female ‘i’iwi wear smoldering red feathers with black wings and an extravagantly curved bill. (Native Hawaiians traditionally utilized those feathers for capes representative of high status.) That curved beak comes well shaped for feasting on nectar, including that of the ohia tree, for which this honeycreeper serves as a critical pollinator.

The ‘i’iwi was once common in lowland habitats in Hawaii, but as with many native birds habitat loss, disease, and other anthropogenic threats have driven it upslope in recent centuries. Today, it’s mainly sought in high-elevation wet forests on the Big Island, Maui, and Kauai, though a small population exists on Oahu as well.

The Swallow-Tailed Kite

A white bird with a black outline on its wings and bodies, with a v-shaped tail flying overhead(Opens in a new window) You can see where it got its name. Photo by Under the same moon

The swallow-tailed kite deserves a place on the shortlist of the world’s most graceful birds. Outfitted in snowy white, with long slender wings and the namesake forked tail dipped in black, this kite is absolutely mesmerizing to watch in flight: weaving and looping, angling its tailfeathers to make tight turns. These elegant aerobatics serve this delicate raptor well in catching flying insects on the wing or snatching snakes, frogs, and other small prey out of tree canopies.

Spending the winter in South America, many swallow-tailed kites migrate north into the American Southeast to nest among swamps, bottomland forests, and pine flatwoods. Florida is a particularly auspicious place to look for them. These kites once bred well up the Mississippi Valley into the Midwest, and wayward birds still sometimes drift far north of their typical range. Needless to say, there’s really no mistaking them.

The Green Jay

A bird with a green body, and a blue and black head and tail, sitting on a branch looking over its shoulder(Opens in a new window) A Green Jay perches on a branch at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Reserve in the Rio Grande Valley of Southern Texas. Photo by Mark Olsen

One of a treasure-trove of South Texas avifaunal specialties, the green jay is a tropical jay that reaches the northern limits of its range in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Whereas most North American jays outside Mexico are predominantly blue (or, in the case of the gray jay, well, gray), this noisy, group-foraging bird stands out from the pack with its bold green plumage. Those emerald body feathers contrast dramatically with the jay’s sharply patterned blue and black head and the tail’s yellow underside.

A prime place in the Lower Rio Grande Valley to look for the green jay is the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, which can also offer glimpses of such other U.S. rarities as hook-billed kites and plain chachalacas.

The Painted Bunting

A bird with a bright red body, bright blue head and green accents on the wings(Opens in a new window) “Eye-catching” doesn’t even begin to describe the painted bunting. Photo by Joshua J. Cotten

All of North America’s buntings are lookers, but this one is the most eye-catching of them all. The male painted bunting with his blue head, green back, and red underside brings tropical zest to the woodlots, meadows, and brush fields of the south-central and southeastern U.S. where the species breeds. Like the prothonotary warbler, the sweet-singing painted bunting exemplifies how extraordinary-looking even common and widely distributed American birds can be.

Fairly common, yes, but not without population threats: As they once were in the American South, painting buntings are extensively trapped in their winter range of Mexico and Central America for the cagebird trade.

The California Condor

A large, dark bird with a red head and white beak, landing with its wings spread out(Opens in a new window) The greatest wingspan in North America. Photo by Jeffrey Eisen

We’ll close things out with the North American bird claiming the greatest wingspan. The California condor is enormous, spreading ragged dark wings that may be 10 feet from tip to tip. Combine that size with a naked, fleshy head and black neck-ruff, and you’ve got a tremendously impressive carrion bird.

The California condor is about as famous a symbol of American conservation as the bison. Much more widespread in the Pleistocene, when this giant soaring scavenger prospered amid abundant carcasses of huge mammals, condors still had quite a vast range in the American West at the time of European settlement. But by the early 1980s, fewer than 25 remained in existence. The species was saved from extinction through an ambitious captive-breeding program, and reintroductions have since returned wild condors to the American Southwest and parts of California.

Besides the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Sequoia National Park, Big Sur, and Pinnacles National Monument, you can now look for free-flying condors on the Redwood Coast of Northern California, where the Yurok Tribe and the National Park Service collaborated on a release just this spring. That reintroduction might serve as a springboard for condors to reoccupy parts of their once-notable Pacific Northwest range.

Written by Ethan Shaw for Matcha in partnership with Osprey Packs.

Featured image provided by Timothy Dykes(Opens in a new window)