Flight of Fancy: 12 Amazing Birds

January 5, 2017 – Birds are all around, connecting people with nature and adding beauty, sound and color to our world. While this allows us to have a wildlife experience every day (no matter where we are), public lands like National Wildlife Refuges are often set aside specifically to protect birds and other wildlife. Many refuges and parks also offer guided bird walks with experts who can offer tips for bird watching and identification to make the experience even more enjoyable.

Throughout 2016, we’re celebrating the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty and 100 years of bird conservation. The treaty was the first international effort to protect birds, wherever they fly.

Check out the cool pictures and fun facts below about 12 of our favorite birds. Some have recovered from near extinction for a dramatic #WildlifeWin. Some you might see and hear everyday. Others are just amazing to watch.

Painted Bunting

A brightly colored bird called a painted bunting stands on the forest floor.
Painted bunting standing on the forest floor at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Photo by Steve Sinclair (www.sharetheexperience.org).

Warm-weather birds, painted buntings rarely travel farther north than Kansas in the summer and spend the winter in Central America. Males are stunningly colorful with feathers of blue, red and bright green. Females and young are uniformly yellow-green. Calling to each other in long, high-pitched notes, they feed on small seeds and breed in overgrown shrubs and thickets. Prized for their colorful plumage and sweet songs, there is a thriving illegal trade of these birds, despite conservation efforts. Summer is the best time to see them in the U.S., at Southern wildlife refuges like Savannah Wildlife Refuge in Georgia and South Carolina and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.

Great Horned Owl

A yellow-eyed owl sits in the crook of a tree looking at the camera.
Great horned owl in Louisiana. Photo by Dennis Demcheck, U.S. Geological Survey.

Widespread across North America, you never know when an owl might be watching you. Difficult to spot during the day, great horned owls blend into their environment, given away only by their bright yellow eyes and deep hooting calls. Like most owls, great horned owls hunt at night, using good eyesight and excellent hearing. Once their prey has been located, they will silently swoop down, using their sharp talons to quickly grasp and kill it. Their diet consists of mammals such as mice, voles, weasels, rabbits, squirrels and rats, but they will often take larger prey including skunks and other owls.

Roseate Spoonbill

Two pink birds standing in shallow water.
Roseate spoonbills standing in shallow water at Everglades National Park in Florida. Photo by Jose Mirabal (www.sharetheexperience.org).

Think pink! Just getting started with bird watching? Even beginning birders should have little difficulty identifying this spectacular bird. Look for a large, shocking-pink bird with an enormous spoon-shaped bill in Southeastern coastal wetlands — try Everglades National Park in Florida and wildlife refuges along the Gulf Coast of Texas. These social birds are usually found in groups and nest communally in trees near water. During breeding season the pink plumage ratchets up a few notches for nesting adults — much to the delight of birders and photographers. Spoonbills use their long, curiously-shaped bills to feed, catching prey almost entirely by their sense of touch.They wade through shallow waters with their bill tips (the “spoon” part) slightly open, heads swaying from side to side, ready to snap their bills shut when they feel prey like fish and aquatic invertebrates.

Rocky Mountain Sandhill Crane

Two large grew birds holding their wings out and facing each other as they stand by a pond with mountains rising in the background.
Sandhill cranes at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. Photo by National Park Service.

There are six subspecies of sandhill cranes in North America. The Rocky Mountain sandhill crane is the largest of all, standing four feet tall with a wingspan greater than six feet. Migrating in large numbers, their courtship dances are exciting to witness. Dancing consists of bowing, jumping, head swinging and wing spreading. They may call out, flap their wings and even throw rocks and twigs into the air. Whole groups may take up the dance and the show can end as quickly as it began, after which the cranes go back to feeding as if nothing happened. See sandhills by the thousands at Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in March and New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in November.

Western Tanager

A small yellow bird with a red face perches on the end of a stick.
Western Tanager perched on a tree branch. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

With faces like flames (fading from bright red to bold yellow), Western Tanagers are vibrant summer residents of western woodlands. They were first scientifically documented by the Lewis & Clark expedition. They primarily eat insects and enjoy small fruits in fall and winter when they migrate south to Mexico. The males sing a short song with up and down phrases that some people think sounds like it’s asking and answering questions to itself. Yosemite National Park and Lassen Volcanic National Park in California are great places to see these birds in the summer.

Piping Plover

One adult and three baby piping plovers stand on the beach. Their light gray feathers look very fluffy.
Piping plovers on the beach at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts. Photo by Kaiti Titherinton, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Small, stocky, sandy-colored birds, piping plovers blend into the pale background of open, outer beaches where they feed and nest. Adult plovers have yellow-orange legs, a black band across the forehead from eye to eye and a black ring around the base of the neck. Plover chicks have been likened to tiny wind-up toys or cotton balls with legs. Like their parents, they run in short starts and stops. The bird’s name derives from its call — plaintive bell-like whistles often heard before the birds are seen. Found in three different regions of North America — the Atlantic Coast, the Northern Great Plains and the Great Lakes — piping plovers have a troubled history. In 1986, just 790 breeding pairs survived on the Atlantic Coast, forcing their listing on the Endangered Species Act. Intensive protection has helped the population more than double in the last 20 years. The work is not yet done, with the most recent surveys still placing the Atlantic population at fewer than 2,000 pairs.

White Faced Ibis

A tall bird with dark, shiny feathers cleans itself.
White-faced ibis at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah. Photo courtesy of Leslie Scopes Anderson, National Wildlife Refuge Association.

A very particular bird, white-faced ibises change their nesting place from year to year based on local water levels. Throughout the west, white-faced ibises wander up the western states, taking advantage of temporary foraging grounds like flooded pastures and fresh marshes. Feeding on insects and worms, they pick through water and wet soil with their long, curved beaks. Their glossy coloration — feathers of purple, crimson, teal and gold — help them blend into dark waters. Despite their regal appearance, their rough calls are strange, grunting croaks. Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming is a good place to observe them in the summer.

Roadrunner

A small, sharp-beaked bird standing on the ground in front of a lake.
Roadrunner standing by a lake. Photo by Bureau of Reclamation research camera.

We’re not sure if it’s cartoon nostalgia or its crazy eyes, but we love the greater roadrunner. Weak fliers, roadrunners are built for speed on the ground. Growing almost two feet long, these sleek birds can hit 20 miles per hour and are skilled hunters. Roadrunners thrive in the desert Southwest — look for them at Joshua Tree National Park in California — where they feast on snakes, lizards and small mammals. They can even eat poisonous prey with no ill effects. Revered for their courage, strength and speed, these amazing birds inspired legends in some Native American cultures. The roadrunner’s X-shaped footprint was used by Pueblo tribes as a sacred symbol to ward off evil. You can find them in grasslands and low deserts, but don’t try to catch them — it never seems to end well.

Belted Kingfisher

A bird with a long beak and spiky feathers on its head perches on a tree branch.
Belted kingfisher at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. Photo by Dee Langevin (www.sharetheexperience.org).

With tall, spiky crests, belted kingfishers look confident and regal. They get their name from their amazing ability to spot small fish with keen eyesight and then dive into the water to spear prey with their long bills. It’s a distinctive and effective skill. Never far from water, kingfishers are found across the country near rivers, lakes and shorelines. They’re easy to spot, favoring perches and power lines above water from north Florida to Washington State. Look for their large heads and listen for their loud, rattling call.

Snowy Egret

A large white bird lands on the water.
Snowy egret landing on the water at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. Photo by Ray Hennessy (www.sharetheexperience.org).

Snowy egrets are gorgeous, graceful small birds that are often found in many types of aquatic habitats. In the late 1800s, the species was nearly destroyed by plume hunters seeking their elegant feathers for ladies hats. With strong protections and established refuges — particularly along our southern coasts — snowy egrets are now thriving and even expanding their historic range. They are easy to identify by their bright yellow feet, which they use to stir up prey in shallow waters. Delicate in appearance, their calls are loud and harsh.

Bald Eagle

A bald eagle flying over water.
Bald eagle in flight at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Photo by Bert van Mackelenbergh (www.sharetheexperience.org).

Distinguished by a white head and white tail feathers, bald eagles are powerful birds that can have a wingspan of 8 feet and can now be found in every state except Hawaii. They are found in the greatest numbers in Alaska — Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge is a terrific place for eagle-watching — near rivers, lakes and coasts where they can find fish. Both male and female bald eagles develop their white heads around the age of 4 or 5. Bald eagles mate for life, choosing the tops of large trees to build nests, which they typically use and enlarge each year. Nests may reach 10 feet across and weigh a half ton.

Brown Pelican

A large pelican with a white head and gray body stands on a rock with other pelicans in the background.
Brown pelicans on a rocky shoreline. Photo by Roy W. Lowe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

With their oversized bills and big, dark bodies, brown pelicans look kind of goofy perched on a post or grouped together on a sand bar. However, watching them glide over rolling surf or taking plunging, sharp dives into the water reminds us of their power and grace. High altitude dives into water stun small fish with the force of the impact and allow pelicans to scoop them up with their huge, expandable throat. Almost wiped out by pesticide poisoning between the 1950s and 1970s, their populations have rebounded, and you can find them along the southern U.S. coasts. Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida was established as the first federal bird reservation, giving birth to the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Want to see these amazing birds for yourself? Here are some great tips to help you get the most out of your bird watching experience.