California is a major stop along the Pacific Flyway for spring migration. Almost a billion birds of hundreds of different species pass through the West on their way north. The state holds a variety of key habitats for these migrants, which may include your backyard or local park.
Common California Birds
Anyone just getting interested in birds can get a quick start by identifying the ones that live in the neighborhood or pass by annually. Here are some tips for learning to recognize some of the most common Western birds.
Dark Eyed Junco
If you are hearing a songbird in your backyard in North America, it might very well be a dark-eyed junco. With some 630 million individuals, this species is the most abundant songbird in the country, migrating from south to north in summers, then back again. In Southern California this species is only seen in the winter, but in conifer forests on the coast and in mountainous regions, they can be seen all year round, seeking food, making ticking calls and flashing their white outer tail feathers as they fly into shrub cover.
Is there any bird better known than the American robin, with its familiar orange red breast? Considered a sign of spring, robins can also wander around in winter, switching from worm-hunting to scouting for berries in shrubs.
Cedar waxwings have the distinction of being one the few birds that can survive on fruit alone for months at a time. Recognize them by their thin, lisping calls as flocking waxwings drop down to berry-laden trees and shrubs. They love the fruit so much they sometimes get “drunk” on fermenting overripe berries.
Another very common California bird is the jewel-toned Allen hummingbird, tiny fliers with brilliant reddish orange throats. They winter in Mexico but return to coastal California in early spring to delight us with their elaborate courting ritual. There is a small resident population in Southern California year-round.
California Backyard Birds
Most but not all of the birds found in backyards in the state will be California native birds. There are always the exceptions, like San Francisco’s parrot population that are the progeny of birds that were pets but escaped captivity.
One you are likely to see at your backyard feeder is the long-tailed scrub jay, seen often in California coastal areas and foothills. Assertive, inquisitive, and vocal, California scrub jays eat insects, fruits, seeds and acorns, hiding the latter away for winter consumption. They are less popular with other birds, however, since they also like to rob nests and consume eggs and young birds.
The Cooper's hawk is the most common hawk in California, but it may not be one of the most common in your backyard. They live in woodlands throughout the state, but are secretive. Look for their long trails and rounded wings as they hunt from the air above the edge of a forest or field for robins, doves and small mammals. They sometimes visit backyard feeders, but to eat the visiting birds, not the bird food you set out.
Set out suet or seeds, and you may see chestnut-backed chickadees year-round in coastal California's coniferous forests as well as forest habitats in the central Sierra Nevada and suburban areas in eastern San Francisco Bay. They are merry and sociable, foraging in flocks of other species as well as their own.
Birds in Nevada
Common Nevada birds are different from California bird species as the climates are very different. In fact, given Nevada’s diverse ecosystems, the birds that are common in the deserts of eastern Nevada will be different from those that live in the pine forests of southern Nevada.
One Nevada bird you may see in summer in short-grass prairies is the chestnut-collared longspur. The male’s breeding plumage is exceptional, with black, brown, and buff stripes on the back and two pale wing bars and a white shoulder patch.
Another common Nevada bird is Harris’s sparrow, a large, plump sparrow with distinctive markings including streaked reddish brown back and reddish brown wings with two white wing bars and a pink bill. They form flocks with other sparrow species.
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Teo Spengler has been gardening for 30 years. She is a docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Her passion is trees, 250 of which she has planted on her land in France.