A Brief Guide to Common Birds
The 28 bird species selected for this guide were chosen because
they are some of the most widespread and common birds in North America and
are found in a wide variety of habitats. They are presented in roughly the same
order in which they are found in standard field guides. The description of the
bird is given, followed by a call to a recording the voice of the bird. For
example, the first bird is Common Loon. The description of the bird is followed
by a clickable link to a recording of a frequently heard call of the Common Loon.
Descriptions and habitat listings are adapted from the NHEST Interactive Guide
to the Birds.
The sounds given below are some of the more common sounds made by the
various birds. All bird voice files were obtained from MIST Software Assoc. They are shortened
and condensed from the original recordings made by MIST Software in order to
make them more manageable over the internet. Remember, some birdsongs go
on for a long time. The Mockingbird often sings for extended periods, and the
Red-eyed Vireo seems to sing constantly while feeding in the treetops. The
Whip-poor-will's loud song can also go on and on. And these nocturnal birds
seem to choose singing spots near the windows of sleeping humans. At first, the
bird enthusiast feels fortunate to be able to hear the Whip-poor-will without
even getting out of bed. But before long, he or she begins to wonder if the bird
has an 'off' switch. Some birds make many different calls.
Following the list of birds is a list of general habitat types and the birds from this
guide often found in the various habitat types. Remember, many birds may be
seen in a variety of habitats.
The Common Loon (Gavia immer)
is a black and white waterbird longer than the arm of a big man. It's wild, ringing calls are
often regarded as the voice of the north woods. Loons are found on wooded lakes and
rivers in Canada and northern United States in the summer and in the ocean as far south as
the gulf coast in winter. Loons feed by catching fish under water. The loon is the state
bird of Minnesota.
Voice of the loon
The Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) is
a gray-backed bird of coasts, bays, beaches, lakes, piers, farmlands, and dumps. It is
found throughout the northern parts of the northern hemisphere. These are noisy,
gregarious birds which will eat almost anything. They are about the length of a man's
The Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)
is a heavy bodied, black, white, and gray water bird ranging in size from much shorter than
a person's arm to much longer. It is found in Canada and northern US in summer. The
birds winter from the northern states south. The voice is a honking sound, often heard
overhead during spring and fall migrations.
The Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) is
the common duck from which many barnyard ducks are descended. A little longer than an
adult's forearm, the male has a green head, chestnut breast, and a mixture of gray, brown,
and white behind. The female is mainly brown except for blue and white wing patches.
Females quack, males squeak. The Mallard is found throughout the northern hemisphere
in marshes, swamps, ponds, grainfields, rivers, lakes, and bays. It typically feeds by
tipping up so that its head is below the surface but its tail is pointed skyward.
Voice of the
The Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)is
slightly larger than a human's handspan, brown and white with black rings on the neck. Its
name derives from its loud repetition of its call. Though technically a shorebird of the
plover group, it is found in fields, airports, and lawns as well as shorelands. It is found
from Canada to Mexico in the summer with some migration from northern areas in
Voice of the
The Redtailed Hawk (Buteo
jamaicensis) is one of the commonest hawks of North America as far south as
Panama. It is variably brown and white with a striking red tail in adults. A bird of the
open country, the Redtail feeds primarily on small rodents. Its call is often described as a
high, asthmatic scream. The birds wingspan is about the same as a 12-year-old child's
The 'mourning' in the name, 'Mourning Dove' refers
to the sad quality of its call. A primarily brown (with mixes of pink, black, and white)
bird, the Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)is the size of man's hand, but
with a long tail. It is found in a wide variety of habitats from southern Canada to
The Rock Dove (Columba livia), or
Domestic Pigeon, is a Eurasian import found primarily in urban areas and farmlands. The
color schemes are widely variable. Its voice is a gurgling cooo.
The Whip-poor-will (Caprimulgus
vociferus)was named for its voice, though some think the call sounds more like,
'Purple Rib.' This large-headed night bird the size of a man's hand is brownish in color and
nests from Canada to Central America where it chases insects in leafy woodlands. It
winters from the gulf states southward. The accent on the first and last syllables of the
often-repeated call distinguish it from near relative Chuck-will's-widow which accents the
middle syllables of its call.
Voice of Whip-poor-
The Great Horned Owl (Bubo
virginianus) is a large -- longer than the forearm of a large man -- brownish mottled
owl with ear tufts. It ranges from tree-line in the north to Tierra del Fuego and is found in
a wide variety of habitats. Its call is distinguished from that of other species by the
distinctive cadence. Great Horned Owls eat a variety of birds and mammals, including,
Great Horned Owl
The Barred Owl (Strix varia) is a
tuftless, mottled gray-brown bird of deciduous forests from Canada to Central America.
It's call is often rendered as 'Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?' Most northern
birds don't seem to say 'you-all', while southern birds do. Caution should be used in
interpreting this bit of trivia.
The Common Flicker (Colaptes
auratus) is a mottled yellow, black, red, and white bird with red or yellow under the
wings. It is larger than hand-sized. Found from as far north as treeline in the summer, it
migrates from these northerly areas in winter. Flickers are the woodpecker most likely to
be found on the ground where they feed on ants. The call is like the Pileated
Woodpeckers, but longer and less ringing. Under the name, 'Yellowhammer' it is the state
bird of Alabama.
A forearm-length, noisy, gregarious bird of woods
and farmland, the Common Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is a familiar figure
from Canada to southern US. It feeds on just about anything making it unpopular with
farmers whose crops it eats and with other birds whose eggs it eats. The voice is clearer
and less nasal than that of other crows.
Noisy, agressive, and gregarious, the Bluejay
(Cyanocitta cristata) is a crested blue, and white bird with a black collar. It is
larger than a person's hand. It is found from Canada to the gulf states where its variety of
calls are familiar in forest and town. It often mimics hawks, scaring other birds from
feeders. Bluejays eat just about anything organic.
The Black-capped Chickadee (Parus
attricapillus) is a thumb-sized, omniverous black, white, and gray bird of woodlands
and feeders of northern US and Canada. The familiar chickadee call is an alarm note. It's
song is a two note 'fee-bee'. The other chickadees of the country have either higher
pitched, harsher, or no chickadee calls. The almost indistinguishable Carolina Chickadee
has a higher pitched call and a four-note song. The Black-capped Chickadee is the state
bird of Maine and Massachussetts.
The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta
canadensis) is found in coniferous and mixed woods in Canada and northern US in
the summer, wintering in the southeast. It is a chubby bird not much larger than a man's
thumb and is found crawling down tree trunks headfirst in search of insects. Its calls are
similar to those of the White-breasted Nuthatch with which it may be found at feeders or
in mixed woods.
The Northern Mockingbird (Mimus
polyglottos) is a slender, gray and white bird longer than a man's hand. It is found
from southern Canada to southern Mexico, though it is scattered in the northern part of its
range. It is found in towns, farms, roadsides, and thickets where it eats fruits and insects.
The mockingbird is the famous mimic of other birds. It usually repreats phrases in its song
three or more times which distinguishes it from near relatives such as the Brown Thrasher
and Catbird which use less repitition.
Voice of the
The American Robin (Turdus
migratorius) is a heavy-bodied gray bird with a brick-red breast. It is the length of a
large man's span. The Robin is found from Alaska and Canada to southern Mexico and
winters, often in large flocks, generally south of Canada. It is found in urban and
suburban areas, farmlands, and forests. The song is cheerful sounding, consisting of a
succession of short phrases.
The Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus)
is a small handsized bird of coniferous or mixed woods from Alaska and Canada to
western and northeastern US. It winters in southern US and southward. It is brown and
white with a spotted breast and a reddish tail. The Hermit Thrush is often considered the
best singer -- at least to human ears -- of all the birds. Each phrase of its song is clear and
flutelike, variable in pitch. It is introduced by a single clear note. Other thrushes have
similar, though distinctive songs.
Song of the Hermit
The Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus)
is a chubby, slow-moving olive and white bird the size of a child's span. It is found in
deciduous forests in eastern US and Canada. The bird winters in South America. The
Red-eyed Vireo's song is a long monotonous string of short phrases that seem to go on
forever. It can be rendered as: 'Im-a vireo. And-what are-you? Not-that I-really care-
much as-long-as I-find bugs-on this-leaf...' and on and on.
Yellow Warblers (Dendroica petechia)
are just that -- yellow. The males add red streaking beneath. Found eating insects in
thickets, wetlands, and gardens throughout North America it is one of our most widely
spread and well-known members of the Wood Warbler group. The song is rendered by
some listeners as: 'Sweet-sweet-sweet; I'm so sweet.' It can be a good memory aid to put
words like that to bird songs as long as you remember that what he is REALLY saying is
'I'm the biggest, toughest yellow warbler in the world and you better keep out of my
territory -- except for you ladies, of course.
The Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis
trichas) is a thumb-sized yellow and brown bird with a distinctive black burglar's
mask in the males. Found in wet brushlands throughout most of North America in the
summer, it winters in southern US and the West Indes. Its song is distinctive, consisting
of a short repitition of two or three note phrases.
This hand-sized marsh and field bird has a loud,
harsh, familiar voice. The Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is
heard from Canada to the West Indes. The males are black with red and yellow shoulder
patches, females are brown and white with heavy streaking.
The European Starling (Sturnus
vulgaris) is a black speckled bird introduced in this area and now found wherever
people are found. It's squeeking and squawking can make one bird sound like a whole
treefull. In winter, the Starling gathers in huge flocks with other blackbirds.
The House Sparrow (Passer
domesticus) is a brown, gray, and black bird the length of a child's span. This
Eurasian import is now found in cities and farms throughout most of the world. It is an
aggressive bird whose song is little more than a frequent repetition of its call note.
The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis
cardinalis) is a crested, hand-sized red bird, very striking in the male. It is the state
bird of seven different states. Cardinals are found in urban and suburban areas and
margins of woodlands from southern Canada to the gulf states and across the south to
Mexico and Central America. The song is a variable series of clear whistles, one common
version being rendered by some listeners as; 'birdy, birdy, birdy'.
The Chipping Sparrow (Spizella
passerina) is between thumb-size and child's hand-size. It is rusty and brown
streaked above, gray beneath. It is found in open coniferous woods, farms, and gardens
from Canada to Central America. It winters from southern US south. The song is a
weak, dry trill that can in some cases be mistaken for other trilling birds such as Junco,
Pine Warbler, or Swamp Sparrow.
The Song Sparrow (Melospiza
melodia) is a brown and white streaked bird with a spot in the breast. The length of
a child's span, it is found in brushy areas and gardens throughout most of North America.
The song usually starts with three or four sharp, musical notes, and is variable after
BIRDS OF CITIES, TOWNS, AND SUBURBS:
Birds found in cities, towns, and suburbs include; Herring Gull, Mourning Dove, Rock
Dove, Common Crow, Bluejay, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch,
Northern Mockingbird, American Robin, Yellow Warbler, European Starling, House
Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Chipping Sparrow, and Song Sparrow.
BIRDS OVERHEAD: Birds often heard flying
overhead include; Herring Gull, Canada Goose, Killdeer, and Red-tailed Hawk.
BIRDS OF WET AREAS: Birds heard in wet areas
include; Common Loon, Herring Gull, Canada Goose, Mallard Duck, Killdeer, Common
Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, and Red-winged Blackbird.
FOREST BIRDS: Birds commonly heard in and
around forests include; Mourning Dove, Whip-poor-will, Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl,
Common Flicker, Common Crow, Bluejay, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted
Nuthatch, American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Red-eyed Vireo, and Northern Cardinal.
BIRDS OF FARM AND OPEN LANDS: Birds
commonly heard in farming and open areas include; Herring Gull, Canada Goose, Mallard
Duck, Killdeer, Redtailed Hawk, Mourning Dove, Rock Dove, Whip-poor-will, Great
Horned Owl, Common Flicker, Common Crow, Bluejay, American Robin, Yellow
Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Red-winged Blackbird, European Starling, House
Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, and Song Sparrow.
NIGHTBIRDS: Birds often or usually heard at night
or late evening include; "Common Loon, Whip-poor-will, Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl,
Northern Mockingbird, and Hermit Thrush.
Index of Birds