Birdwatching is a favorite pastime for many public lands visitors. Over 1,000 species of birds can be found in the United States, and national parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas are often the best places to find them. From tiny hummingbirds to lumbering turkeys, America’s birds come in an amazing variety of colors, sizes, shapes and behaviors. For the serious birder, spotting a rare bird is a thrill, but everyone can enjoy the excitement of watching birds soar above them at nearby public lands.
We’ve already highlighted some of our favorite birds, but check out the list below to see more of these wonderful creatures.
One of the most recognizable birds in the U.S., the northern cardinal male is easily identified by its bright red feathers. More discreet, females are pale brown with red tinges in the wings, tail and crest. Common in brushy habitats, they can often be seen feeding while hopping around on the ground looking for larvae, seeds and berries. Northern cardinals are found in the eastern states, along the Mississippi River at places like Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge in Illinois, and across the Great Plains at public lands like Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. No matter where you spot these birds, their high pitched, clear song can be heard from near and far. They don’t migrate and males keep their bright feathers all year, so it’s easy to keep track of the ones that live near you.
A favorite of birdwatchers, the spritely yellow warbler might be small in size, but it makes up for it with its bright yellow feathers. One of more than 50 species of warblers found in North America, this delightful bird is often found flitting through river thickets, like those in Mississippi National River and Recreation Area in Minnesota or along the Ridge to Rivers Trail System in Idaho. Migrating as far north as Alaska in the summer and as far south as Brazil in the winter, the yellow warbler can cover a lot of distance. It eats mostly insects, so don’t expect to see one at backyard feeders. With those bright yellow feathers, it’s not difficult to spot in the wild.
Legends of the sea and sky, Laysan albatrosses spend most of their lives swimming in or soaring above the Pacific Ocean. They eat squid and fish and are expert soarers, able to fly hundreds of miles a day by gliding on the wind. They can live very long lives. Wisdom -- a Laysan albatross banded in 1956 -- is still alive and well at an estimated age of 66 years old. You can see Wisdom and many of her albatross friends during the breeding season at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.
Here’s another vividly colored bird. Mountain bluebirds are one of the most recognized birds due to their distinct, vibrant blue feathers. This fascinating blue hue is due to the microscopic structure of the feathers reflecting sunlight in the same way that molecules of air make the sky look blue. Mountain bluebirds are found across the western U.S., arriving in the northern Rockies as a sign that spring has arrived and spending the winter months in the Southwest and Mexico. You can spot them at places like Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Idaho in the summer and Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico in the winter. Because of their habit of nesting in tree cavities, mountain bluebirds can be attracted to bird houses for people looking for colorful neighbors.
If you want to catch a glimpse of the green jay in the U.S., you’ll have to go to south Texas. This medium-sized bird grows to about a foot long and has a bright blue head above it’s lustrous green body. By far the most colorful of the North American jays, the green jay is often on a birder’s bucket list. As brightly colored as it is, this bird can be surprisingly hard to see in subtropical woodlands, its two-toned greens and yellows blending into the leafy tree canopies it inhabits. If you visit Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and wait long enough, you just might see one hunting insects or foraging for seeds.
A checkerboard of red, white and black, red-headed woodpeckers are gorgeous and interesting birds. Red-headed woodpeckers use their powerful beaks to dig into trees, searching for insects and creating holes for food storage and nesting. Bird watchers often find them by listening for their “drumming,” an activity where woodpeckers peck loud patterns out on resonating items to communicate with other birds. Feeding on fruit and seeds, they are one of only four North American woodpeckers known to store food. Red-headed woodpeckers will fiercely defend their territory, often destroying the nests of other birds. You can find these wonderful birds in most states east of the Rockies at public lands like Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge in Kentucky and Congaree National Park in South Carolina.
Seeing a hummingbird is always exciting. Small but mighty, the Rufuos hummingbird often attacks larger birds to feed on nectar-rich flowers. It can drink up to two times its body weight per day and is a vital pollinator. The Rufuos hummingbird beats its wings over 50 times per second and, like other hummingbirds, has the ability to fly backwards. Adding vivid color to forests and fields, Rufuos hummingbird females are green with orange throats, and males show bright orange feathers all over. This tiny bird migrates from Mexico to spend the summer breeding in the Pacific Northwest. Look for one at Olympic National Park in Washington and Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
Let’s dive in with the puffin! This bird swims underwater using its wings for propulsion and its feet for steering. There are three types of puffins: the Atlantic puffin is found along the coast of Maine and Canada, while the horned and the tufted puffins nest along the Pacific coast of Alaska and Canada. All puffins have short white facial feathers and flashy beak plates, but the tufted puffin can be distinguished by yellow feathers atop its head. Spending most of its time at sea, the puffin comes on shore to breed and nest in cliff holes and burrows. Flying is more difficult; the puffin has to beat its wings 400 times a minute to stay aloft, making any small increment of weight significant. Check out this fascinating bird at Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife or watch them on the Puffin Cam.
The red-footed booby, the smallest of all boobies, displays a wide variety of color combinations not found in most seabirds. Getting its name from its red feet and legs, the red-footed booby also has a pale blue bill. This wonderful seabird can live up to 22 years and often begins breeding after the age of four. A monogamous bird, the female and male share egg warming duties, keeping their single egg protected with their webbed feet. A graceful hunter, it plunges into the water at high speeds to catch fish. Rarely seen in the continental U.S., the red-footed booby can be spotted at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and National Park of American Samoa.
Living year round in most of the contiguous United States, the great blue heron is easy to spot and recognize. A wonderful combination of beauty, grace and dominance, the elegant great blue heron typically occupies wetlands, coastal or river areas such as the New River Gorge National River in West Virginia or Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District in Nebraska. This long-legged bird stalks the sky and shore looking for prey, its tremendous wingspan reaching up to seven feet long. The largest species of Heron in North America, the great blue heron is truly a beautiful sight to behold.
Quack! Did you know that this stereotypical duck call is only made by the female mallard? Mallards feed almost entirely on plant matter, often “tipping up” with their tails in the air and their beaks searching the water for food. The male mallard, otherwise known as the drake, can be distinguished from the female by its green, iridescent head. Mallards can be found on public lands across the most of the country year round and in the Southeast in the winter. A favorite of sportsmen and sportswomen, mallards often grace the Federal Duck Stamp that must be purchased every year to legally hunt migratory birds.
Beautiful but mysterious, the American bittern is a secretive resident that is often hard to observe. With streaks of brown and gray, it can disappear into reeds and tall grass. The bittern has short legs, a slightly hunched posture and looks very serious as it wades through wetlands hunting insects, fish, amphibians and small mammals. Swallowing its prey whole, it later regurgitates the indigestible parts as a pellet. The American bittern typically breeds in the U.S and Canada, wintering in the southern U.S and Central America. Keep a sharp eye out for it at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland and King Range National Conservation Area in California.
Turkey isn’t just for Thanksgiving. The wild turkey is one of the largest birds in North America and can reach up to 4 feet long from tail to beak. Don’t underestimate this large, awkward bird. The turkey can fly short distances, escaping danger in tree branches and gliding back down when the coast is clear. This ground nester can also be heard calling from high points during the springtime. Listen for its call the next time you visit Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in Illinois or Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts.
The peregrine falcon is one of nature's swiftest and most beautiful birds of prey. Its name comes from the Latin word peregrinus, meaning "foreigner" or "traveler." This impressive bird is famous for its speed and aerial skills. Feeding primarily on songbirds, ducks and pigeons, the peregrine falcon flies high above its prey, diving in for a quick and graceful kill. Scientists have estimated the speed of a diving peregrine to be close to 200 miles per hour! Removed from the endangered species list in 1999, this bird is an excellent example of a successful recovery of a threatened species. Favoring cliffs and elevated views, the peregrine falcon can be seen at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Nevada.
Birdwatching is a great outdoor hobby for people across the country, but be careful, it can be addictive. Before you know it, you’ll be dreaming of colors and crests and calls, finding excuses to wander into the forest, and studying field guides to identify your new feathered friends. Explore more bird watching tips and some suggested public lands to look for them.