Fascinating Bird Facts for the Birder in All of Us
There are more than 2,000 species of birds in North America, and they all have fascinating characteristics.
Fascinating Bird Facts for the Birder in All of Us
There are about 10,0000 bird species in the world, about 2,000 of which live in North America. They come in all shapes, sizes, colors and personalities. Northern Cardinals, Bald Eagles, American Robins and Red-Winged Blackbirds are just some of the unique species of bird that you’ll find flying around North America.
Elementary school taught us that birds fly south for the winter and migrate north during the summer months. But what else do we know about specific bird species in the United States, Mexico and Canada? Here are 35 facts about North American birds and insight on where to find them. Grab a pair of binoculars, and let’s go bird watching!
The American Flamingo Can Live Up to 60 Years
There are six species of flamingos on the planet, but the American Flamingo is the largest of them all. They can grow to 5-feet tall and weigh up to 8 pounds. They also have a life span of between 40 to 60 years — one of the longest for birds.
American Flamingos are the only species of flamingo found in North America, and they like to hang out in the tropical Caribbean islands.
American Robins Migrate in Huge Flocks
The American Robin is a common bird species throughout North America. They like to live where humans reside (cities, farms and suburbs) and forage in open lawns.
If you live in the United States, you may find this bird in your backyard searching for earthworms or pecking at your bird feeder! Look to the sky during fall and spring as they migrate in huge flocks — as many as 60,000 at a time! — at speeds up to 35 mph.
There Are 50 Sparrow Species in North America
If you thought Robins were common, there are about 50 species of sparrows across North America! Some North American species include the Song Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow and Lake Sparrow. Most sparrows are 5- to 7-inches long with camouflaged colored feathers of brown, black and gray.
They’re also super social! You can find sparrows throughout the central and southern United States.
North America Boasts More Than 50 Species of Warblers
While we’re at it, there are about 50 species of warblers in North America. They’re known for being a common songbird throughout the United States. Warblers are tiny, colorful and hard to spot but very loud when they sing.
They like to perch on treetops and hang out in woody areas across Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.
Mourning Doves Can Raise Up to 6 Broods a Year
So, how did they get their name? You may recognize their cry being a bit “mournful.” It sounds like oowoo-woo-woo-woo … you’ve probably heard it before.
They like to hang out in open areas, rather than forests, across the United States. The Mourning Dove can raise about six broods a year, more than any other native bird. Oh yeah, they have a lot of babies.
A Chickadee Has a Very Specific Alarm Call
The chickadee is named for its call, which makes a “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” sound. Apparently, the number of “dees” depends on the predator that they’re alarming their fellow birds about.
They like to splash in water, so they’ll fly over to a birdbath if your garden has one. Chickadees are energetic and friendly little birds that call Canada or west of the Rocky Mountains home. They are cavity-nesting birds, meaning they wouldn’t say no to a birdhouse with the proper dimensions.
The Northern Cardinal Is the State Bird of Seven States
Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia are lucky to call the Northern Cardinal their state bird. These birds are also popular mascots of professional, collegiate and high school sports teams throughout the United States.
The Northern Cardinal is an avid singer and songwriter, with the ability to sing more than 24 song variations! Plus, they sing different song variations depending on their geographical location. You can spot them throughout the U.S. into Mexico and as far south as Central America.
Bluebirds Don’t Migrate South for the Winter
A bluebird’s diet depends on the season. They like to eat a variety of snails, grubs, caterpillars, grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, ants, spiders and other insects — definitely not picky eaters. Bluebirds stay in their range year-round, meaning they don’t migrate during the winter. So, when insects are less abundant during the winter, bluebirds happily feast on fruit.
If you have a bird feeder, add live or dried mealworms to get a bluebird’s attention. There are Eastern Bluebirds (pictured) that call east of the Rocky Mountains home, and there are Western Bluebirds that call west of the Rocky Mountains home.
Wrens Need Houses
Wrens prefer a roof over their heads rather than an open patio nest setting. They are cavity-nesting birds, so they build nests, lay eggs and raise young inside sheltered chambers such as a tree trunk or birdhouse. Wrens are competitive when it comes to real estate. They’ll aggressively chase away other birds who try to invade their enclosed nesting site.
Wrens find homes in a range of unusual places such as garden pots, mailboxes, drainpipes and boots left outside. You’ll spot wrens across North America, but they particularly like woodland areas.
You Can Tell the Chipping Sparrow Apart From Other Sparrows Because of Its Dark Eyeliner
If you’re struggling to tell the difference among sparrows in your backyard or garden, look at their eyeliner. The Chipping Sparrow has a distinct black winged eyeliner look, while others have brown or grey eyeliner and a hint of eye shadow.
You can spot Chipping Sparrows in woods, orchards and farms across Canada, the United States and Mexico.
Blue Jays Can Mimic Hawk Calls
Blue Jays are cheeky little birds. They like to play a game of “how-well-can-you-mimic-that-hawk?” They mimic Red-Tailed Hawks and Red-Shouldered Hawks to scare other birds away from food, which may confuse a birdwatcher.
Blue Jays have powerful vocal cords that can create squeaking, croaking and rattling sounds. This loud, colorful, and unmistakable bird can be found in backyards across the eastern United States.
The Atlantic Puffin Can Carry a Dozen Fish in Its Mouth
Atlantic Puffins are cute little oddballs that like to go cast fishing. They hang out in cold coastal waters off the coast of Maine or eastern Canada. Puffins swim underwater to find food and often come up with 12 tiny fish in their mouth to bring home for dinner. (We’re talkin’ super tiny fish, like this.)
While they do most of their foraging within 50 feet underwater, they can dive up to 200 feet! When it’s time to fly, they can reach speeds of up to 55 mph!
The Bald Eagle Is the Emblem Bird of the United States
The majestic Bald Eagle became the symbol of the United States in 1782. After the Declaration of Independence was signed, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had the daunting task of creating a seal for the new nation. But they were unsuccessful in their creative efforts.
In 1782, Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson stepped up to suggest the Bald Eagle as the symbol of the United States. Congress loved it, and since then, the brave bird appears on government-related items and buildings. If you’re lucky, you can spot Bald Eagles along rivers and reservoirs scattered across the United States, but they’re most prominent in Alaska and the east coast of Canada.
The Barn Owl Attracts Global Superstition
Spotting a Barn Owl in England is an omen of death. This is partly because Shakespeare wrote in “Macbeth” that "it was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman which gives the sternest goodnight." And in Central and South America, spotting a Barn Owl during the daytime foreshadows the death of a friend or relative.
But those are just superstitions! Seeing a Barn Owl is actually a good sign in North America. Farmers like finding them in their barns because they eat mice and rats. Barn Owls call East and West Coast farmland of North America home.
The Calliope Hummingbird Is the Smallest Bird in North America
The smallest bird in North America is the Calliope Hummingbird. This little guy grows to about 3-inches long and weighs about one-tenth of an ounce.
They don’t like the cold, so they’ll migrate each year from Canada to Mexico. You can spot them during migration as they like to stick their beaks in flowers to drink nectar and eat insects.
Golden Eagles Are the Largest Hunting Birds in North America
The wingspan of a Golden Eagle can reach up to 7 feet, making it the largest hunting bird in North America. That impressive wingspan allows these magnificent birds to fly, dive and grab prey at speeds of up to 200 mph.
You can spot them in the western parts of the United States.
Ravens Can Mimic Humans
We know that parrots mimic humans, but did you know that ravens (in captivity) can be chatterboxes? They’re great at mimicking human speech and other miscellaneous sounds. Wild ravens mimic other animals (usually predators) to — get this — attract them to carcasses that they're unable to break open on their own. How clever is that?! Scientists categorized 33 different sounds that ravens can make.
You can find them in forested habitats across North America.
Cardinals Cover Themselves in Ants
In a process called “anting,” cardinals (and other bird species) cover themselves in ants as a form of maintenance (like a shower). They smear the bugs all over their feathers for reasons that are uncertain to researchers. Some think that it helps with prey preparation while others assume that the formic acid of wild ants gets rid of parasites on the cardinal’s bodies.
There are three types of cardinals in North America. The Red-Crested Cardinal (pictured) can be found in Hawaii and Puerto Rico. The Northern Cardinal lives east of the Rocky Mountains. The Desert Cardinal (real name Pyrrhuloxia) calls the Southwest United States and Mexico home.
The Great Horned Owl Swallows Its Food Whole
Dinner is a feast for most owls, as they like to eat larger animals like raccoons, rats and mice. But Great Horned Owls act like snakes, in a way, and swallow their dinner whole. They like to inhale bigger meals such as ospreys, falcons and other owls. They use their extra-strong talons to grip and harm large prey.
You’ll find Great Horned Owls throughout different environments of North America, including deserts, wetlands, mountains and forests.
Ducks Sleep With One Eye Open
Scientists studying ducks discovered a peculiar observation in addition to ducks sleeping with one eye open. They found that when ducks sleep in groups, the ducks in the middle sleep with both eyes shut, and the ones on the outside of the group sleep with one eye open.
The ducks who sleep with one eye open are only letting half of their brain sleep, called "unihemispheric" sleep. They rotate sleep schedules so everyone gets a chance at a good night’s sleep.
Your Pet Parrot Will Probably Outlive You
Parrots have unusually long lifespans. The oldest parrot on record was 82-year-old. “Cookie the Cockatoo” lived at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Like humans, a parrot’s lifespan depends on nutrition, (veterinary) care and mental health.
Parrots in captivity generally live longer than those in the wild, as they’re not susceptible to predators. Many species fall under the umbrella of a parrot, but parakeets are the ones that are native to the eastern and the midwestern United States.
Acorn Woodpeckers Hoard Thousands of Acorns
Acorn Woodpeckers are meticulous little birds. When you hear the drumming of one, they’re actually pecking holes to hide their acorns. And not just a few acorns — hundreds and even thousands! There are records of granaries (trees that act as pantries) with up to 50,000 holes in it to store food. Sometimes, these birds will also drill holes in fence posts, utility poles or buildings.
Woodpeckers hoard acorns because they’re stocking up for winter. They live year-round in the same range, which is usually parts of California, the Southwest and Mexico.
Budgies Are Susceptible to Contagious Yawning
You know how yawning is contagious for humans? A study found evidence that yawning is contagious for Budgies, a common parakeet. It’s the first time contagious yawning has been observed in non-mammalian species.
Researchers are still unsure of why we yawn, but contagious yawning is believed to be more common among empathetic people. Budgies are native to Australia but are popular pets throughout North America.
Killdeer Can Fake a Broken Wing to Distract Predators
Killdeer don’t kill deer, but they can fake an injury to distract predators. These shorebirds usually lay their eggs in exposed areas (like cracks in concrete or on rocks), so that makes them susceptible to predators.
If a predator approaches, the mama bird holds the attention of danger by appearing to be hurt. They lead the predator away from the nest when suddenly the Killdeer gets better and flys away! The adult Killdeer returns to its nest to protect its eggs.
Dark-Eyed Juncos Are the Most Numerous North American Bird Species
Dark-Eyed Juncos are snowbirds that can be found across the continent of North America. Their total population has been counted and estimated to reach 630 million!
They like to hang out in wooded or forested areas and will happily stay north during the winter.
The American Goldfinch Is a Strict Vegetarian
Birds typically have a varied diet of seeds, fish, nectar, insects, acorns, large animals, etc. But the American Goldfinch is a strict vegetarian, eating seeds and an occasional insect.
This is a difficult diet to maintain for other birds. For instance, Cowbirds sometimes lay eggs in the Goldfinch’s nest. When the Cowbird eggs hatch, they can’t survive the all-seed diet that the Goldfinch feeds them. They’re easy to spot throughout North America. Males are bright yellow with black wings, while females are a light brown.
The European Starling Was Introduced to North America Because of Shakespeare
OK, not entirely because of Shakespeare. But, kind of? In 1890, a New York City group of Shakespeare enthusiasts wanted to introduce every bird that was ever mentioned in a Shakespeare play to North Americans.
That means 100 pairs of birds were released in Central Park, and European Starlings were among the new bird population. Since then, these stocky blackbirds migrated to find a suitable home throughout lawns, parks and backyards of North America.
You Can Tell the Difference Between Male and Female Canada Geese by Their Voice
Human males and females have different sounding voices. Females are usually higher pitched, while males have a low pitch. The same goes for Canada Geese! Male Canada Geese have a low pitch “honk,” while females make a high-pitched “hink.”
Canada Geese hangout on open lawns and grassy fields, particularly golf courses and parks. They live in Canada during the summer months and fly in a distinct V-formation to southern states for the winter.
The Mandarin Duck Somehow Made Its Way to Central Park
In 2018, a mysterious and beautiful Mandarin duck (aka “the hot duck”) made its way to New York City. His radiant color patterns and quirky head of feathers led him to become an overnight celebrity that attracted crowds to Central Park.
But the hot duck is not believed to have reached the city by natural means. Mandarin ducks are native to East Asia, not North America, so experts concluded that the duck was likely abandoned or an escaped pet. He has since disappeared very suddenly. The hot duck has an American cousin called the Wood Duck — both of which have elegant colors and claws instead of webbed feet.
Black-Billed Magpies Take 40 Days to Build a Nest
Black-Billed Magpies take their time building a nest for their eggs. It can take them up to 40 days to construct the perfect nest out of twigs and branches. Although they take such meticulous efforts to build a perfect home for their babies, Black-Billed Magpies are nest predators.
Eggs and nestlings make up a small portion of their diet. You can find these noisy birds in open country throughout the northern and western United States and Canada.
Bonaparte's Gull Is the Smallest Gull in North America
There are 28 gull species in North America. Bonaparte’s Gull is the smallest of that group. The name is attributed to French zoologist Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a distant cousin of Napoleon (small bird, small man).
You can spot Bonaparte’s Gull along the coastlines of the United States and into Canada.
The Whooping Crane Is the Tallest Bird in North America
But it’s also one of the rarest crane species. Whooping Cranes stand 5-feet tall and usually weigh about 10 to 19 pounds. It’s listed as an endangered species because there are about 600 Whooping Cranes left in the wild.
So, what’s with the name? They make a “whoop” sound and do a little dance to attract a mate — kind of like when you’re at a nightclub and lock eyes with an attractive person across the dancefloor. Whooping Cranes are migrating birds that spend winter in Texas and the rest of the year in Canada.
The California Condor Is the Largest Flying Bird in North America
Condors are a symbol of power to Native American tribes. They’re often called Thunderbirds because it’s believed that when a condor beats its wings, thunder follows. California Condors live across the western United States and Mexico and often make a nest on the edge of a cliff.
Condors are considered the largest flying bird in North America (different from the Golden Eagle, which is the largest hunting bird). They’re scavengers, not hunters.
Vultures Can’t Carry Prey Away
Vultures have weak grip strength despite having large, sharp talons. Their talons are so weak that they can’t carry prey away. That’s why you may see vultures feeding on carcasses on the side of the road. Yet, evolution gave them an adaption. Vultures have bald heads and necks that allow them to feed on dead animals without attracting bacteria and parasites into their feathers.
There are two types of vultures in North America. The Turkey Vulture lives year-round in the southern United States. The Black Vulture calls the southeast United States and Mexico home.
Roadrunners Run Up to 26 MPH
Roadrunners prefer to walk or run instead of fly. They can run on the ground at a comfortable 15 mph. But when it’s time to sprint, they can reach up to 26 mph! They are the fastest birds that can also fly (there are flightless birds that are faster than roadrunners).
They use their long tails as a rudder to steer, balance and brake. Roadrunners are super cool — they’re known to kill and eat rattlesnakes and scorpions, they can outrun a human and they can survive in desert environments. Roadrunners live in the southwest United States and into Mexico.