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25 Must-See Birds

Add these birds to your birder's lists! These wild bird species stand out as North American highlights.

Tom Wood & Sheri Williamson
Posted: April 11, 2013, 2:30 p.m. PDT

WildBird Magazine LogoThe chance to select 25 must-see birds generated spirited discussion. Lists always do that, whether it is "top 10 movies of the year” or "100 vacation spots to visit before you die.” There’s always a personal favorite that has to be left out or a popular choice that you consider overrated.

As we discussed the possibilities with friends and birding companions (could it be expanded perhaps to 825 must-see species?), we discovered that most candidates met at least one of four criteria: exceptional beauty and/or charisma, iconic status, conservation success stories, and spectacular and/or limited habitats.

We eventually winnowed the 50-odd suggestions to an eclectic 25. To see them all, you’d need to travel the length and breadth of the United States — from the Arctic to the subtropics, from cathedral forests to the vastness of the open ocean. At least one, however, could appear in your yard.

We offer our choices, in no particular order:

Painted Bunting: If you gave a box of crayons and the outline of a songbird to a child, the result might look like this bird. A more colorful and beautiful songbird is difficult to imagine (unless you look at the tropical tanagers).

Painted Bunting
The Painted Bunting's stunning blue, green and red plumage makes it an easily recognizable and fun-to-spot species.
Elegant Trogon: A favorite of our "sky island” mountain canyons, this exotic-looking bird’s gaudy plumage and haunting voice seem more suited for the jungle than the American Southwest. It reminds us of the abundance of wonderful birds waiting for us in the tropics.

Roseate Spoonbill: Combine a comical spoon-shaped bill and gangly legs with the pinks and scarlets of a Caribbean sunset, and you have a bird that must be seen to be believed.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher: Birders love to hate the flycatcher family, but we feel nothing but admiration for this sleek beauty with the long banner tail. Pioneer naturalists called this species the "prairie bird of paradise.”

Prothonotary Warbler: The warbler clan is full of striking birds, but we chose this blue-and-gold denizen of the vanishing southeastern swamps to represent the warblers.

Greater Roadrunner: An icon to be sure, this large desert cuckoo appears surprisingly colorful in the right light. Its Velociraptorlike behavior reminds us that birds descended from the most fearsome beasts that ever walked the Earth.

Canyon Wren: Although not a flashy wren (if there is such a thing), its flutelike, descending song echoing off rock walls embodies the audible essence of the canyons. This accomplished vocalist often sings from within crevices and chambers, adding to its ethereal quality. If you hear a Canyon Wren, you’re usually in a beautiful place.

Great Gray Owl: No list of must-see birds would be complete without an owl. Among many good choices, this ghost of the boreal forests has an aura all its own. Irruption years in the northern states become magical events.

Bald Eagle: Majestic and powerful, our national symbol reminds us that we can bring a species back from the brink of extinction when we care enough.

Peregrine Falcon: Another conservation success story, the world’s fastest bird lives in trackless wilderness, on coastal beaches and among the skyscrapers of our largest cities.

Great Egret: The lacy breeding plumes of this stately wading bird, the emblem of National Audubon Society, almost led to its downfall. The battle against plume hunting not only saved them from extinction but gave birth to the conservation movement and the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Long-tailed Jaeger: Though sometimes spotted in migration off the Pacific coast, this seabird really should be seen on its tundra nesting grounds. It reminds us of North America’s vastness and diversity — and of the fragility of the Arctic wilderness.

Whooping Crane: As if being a graceful, 5-foot-tall white bird was not enough to make the list, this is one of our greatest conservation success stories. Through decades of intense protection and management, "Whoopers” rebounded from a low of only 15 individuals in 1941 to a natural population of more than 250 birds today.

Rufous Hummingbird: Hummingbirds possess a charisma all their own, and none is more charismatic than the Rufous. These little spitfires migrate thousands of miles each year and appear in remote mountain meadows as well as your backyard feeder. Rufous is the only hummingbird species recorded in every state in the continental U.S.

Northern Cardinal: Many of us might take this common bird for granted, but we’ve heard a visiting Australian birder who has parrots in his back yard exclaim long and loud over the cardinal’s vivid vermilion plumage.

Green Jay: Nearly every part of the country has jays, but this chartreuse charmer of southern Texas takes the prize as our most spectacular. As a bonus, it shares its subtropical home with an extravagant array of unusual animals and plants.

Greater Prairie-Chicken: Migration or gaudy plumage might not be their "thing,” but when it comes to breeding displays, the dancing of Greater Prairie-Chickens has to be seen. A field trip to a prairie-chicken lek also provides a chance to visit our rare and vanishing grasslands.

Pileated Woodpecker: Hope might be fading (again) for the gigantic Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but its slightly smaller cousin is a "lord-god” bird in its own right. At 17 inches in length, this is one whopping woodpecker!

Hermit Thrush: This "mood bird” must be experienced on its nesting grounds to be appreciated. Its plumage might not look spectacular, but its otherworldly song ringing through misty woods will spawn goosebumps.

California Condor: Only 27 of these gigantic vultures remained 1987, when the remaining birds were captured in a last-ditch effort to stave off extinction. Thanks to captive-breeding efforts, more than 190 birds now fly free in California and Arizona. Still intensely managed, these Pleistocene relicts thrill birders and nonbirders alike as they soar over the Grand Canyon.

Mountain Bluebird: Take the clear blue sky of the Rocky Mountains, and put it in motion in the graceful flight of a small bird; there you have the recipe for a Mountain Bluebird. In winter, flocks of dozens to hundreds flit about in the grasslands of the Southwest.

American Dipper: Cloaked in banker’s gray, this dapper little songbird lives in the rushing mountain streams of the West. Its beautiful habitat and fascinating lifestyle — diving into swift streams to pluck aquatic invertebrates from the crevice of the rocks — landed it on our list.

Wood Duck: We could make a list of 25 must-see ducks, but for this list, the obvious choice is the extravagant Wood Duck. Our niece, a budding birdwatcher as a Girl Scout, once pointed out a Wood Duck to her troop. One of the other girls corrected her: "No, that’s not a wood duck, that’s a real duck.”

Any albatross: Birds of the open ocean are a world unto themselves, and none exemplify the pelagic life more than the albatrosses. Other than the renegade Yellow-nosed Albatross that was sighted cruising above the New Jersey Turnpike, these quintessential seabirds rarely stray within sight of the mainland.

Any puffin: These iconic clowns of the sea appear in winter down the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but the ultimate puffin experience involves visiting them on their rocky island rookeries.

That’s our list of 25 must-see North American birds. (What? No quail, orioles, sparrows, tanagers? Sorry. Maybe we can include some of those on the fiftieth anniversary list.) If you’ve seen all or most of these birds, congratulations! You’ve been to some wonderful places, seen some of the best that Mother Nature has to offer and made some indelible memories. If you haven’t seen them all, you’ve got some great adventures ahead of you. Go birding!

Excerpt from WildBird Magazine, May/June 2011 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC. To purchase digital back issues of WildBird Magazine, click here.

 

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