The Most Common Birds You'll See in Your Backyard—and One of the Rarest!
It was around 1820 when naturalist John James Audubon declared his aspirations to paint every bird in North America. What followed was countless hours poring over an easel and observing in the wild, drawing in the details to every wing, talon, eye, and feather—resulting in his magnum opus:
The Birds of America
, a book illustrating the wide variety of birds of the United States. The work consists of 435 hand-colored, life-size prints, including some species which have since become extinct with the passage of time—the Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon, and Labrador duck, just to name a few—but you'll find that many of these birds still flock to your backyard today.
These days, local birdwatching is as easy as taking a step outdoors—your backyard attracts plenty of birds. On a nice day, you can grab a chair and sit in an out-of-the-way spot to get a glimpse of the wildlife that lives in your neighborhood. You can do any number of things to attract more birds to your backyard: bird feeders, bird baths, and even the flowers and plants you choose to have in your garden. You could see a blue jay or a red robin on any given day of the week. And if you're able to catch a glimpse of a rare bird, like the Northern Bobwhite, you can count yourself lucky.
Our guide will help you to identify some of the most common birds likely to show up in your backyard. The Audubon Society and local birdwatching groups can also give you guidance and help you to get started on your amateur birdwatching journey. (To find your local chapter, visit audubon.org.) Add some binoculars and a journal to your tool kit, and keep your eyes peeled for these avian wonders.
The Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) features bright red feathers on the males and brown feathers with tinges of red on the female birds. Cardinals are not the type of bird to shy away from a winter, so they do not migrate at all. You'll find that they readily come to bird feeders—the Northern cardinal favors sunflower seeds! This fact may have aided its northward spread. It's most common in the East, where the cardinal is the official state bird for seven states.
The blue jay's (Cyanocitta cristata) distinctive and vibrant blue feathers attract plenty of awe from birdwatchers. These birds love to take advantage of bird feeders, so you are more likely to see one (or several) if you regularly refill a feeder in your yard. Their calls are also easy to recognize once you are familiar with them.
The mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) soft cooing is one of our most familiar bird sounds. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), the mourning dove is a native species that does very well in close association with humans. Their feathers are brownish in color with dark gray wings. Mourning Doves tend to call rural and suburban areas their home.
One of the cutest backyard birds is the black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). You can attract them with bird feeders and window feeders, and they love to eat sunflower seeds, suet, and peanuts. The birds are small with large, rounded heads, topped with black feathers and more black feathers under their tiny black beaks, with soft white-ish undersides.
The Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula) is one of the most brilliantly colored songbirds in the east. With its flaming orange and black plumage, it shares colors with the 17th-century coat of arms of Lord Baltimore—hence its name. Orioles are often common in open woods and groves in summer where they live in hanging bag-shaped nests and feed on insects, flower nectar, and slices of fruit at your feeder.
The white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is found all over the United States, and its numbers are actually increasing. Nuthatches like to spend time in forests, woodlots, and groves, or anywhere that has plenty of shade trees. Sunflower seeds in your bird feeder are an especially attractive treat and they will industriously tout them off to hide them in crevices.
Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are large, majestic birds that you might see overhead. Their body size can reach 18 to 26 inches as an adult, with a wingspan of 38 to 43 inches. Red-tailed hawks are named because of their distinctive brick-colored tail feathers.
The song of an American robin (Turdus migratorius) is familiar to many of us because these birds can be found all over the United States. With its rusty-orange breast and dark gray-brown back, these birds are also one of the easiest to identify. Robins love to eat earthworms and berries.
The house sparrow (Passer domesticus) is commonly found in cities, towns, and farms. These birds like to hang around human-made structures instead of unaltered, natural surroundings. You'll recognize them by their small bodies with a rusty-brown topside, grayish-white underside, and small, black beak.
Despite it's name, the red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) actually does not have a red belly. A splash of bright red feathers cap their heads, and their wings are a unique black and white pattern. Live near a wooded area? Make your yard more inviting with bird feeders that are filled with suet or peanuts.
American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) calling "perchickory" is commonly heard across the United States. With vivid yellow feathers and black feathered caps, the male birds are easy to recognize; females tend to be a lighter shade of yellow. They raise their young together, with the male taking over most of the parenting duties as the babies grow into mature birds. At your feeder, they will often climb acrobatically to reach thistle seeds.
The tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) is a crested little bird that can handle harsh winters, so those who live in colder northern states may be delighted to see them amidst the dreary snow-covered landscape. Its whistled "peter-peter-peter" song may be heard even during mid-winter thaws. Sunflower seeds are a tasty treat for the tufted titmouse; they also enjoy a caterpillar every now and then.
House finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) are spread across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. These birds used to prefer dry, desert areas, but you can now see them in all types of climates. They get their name from the fact that like to live near people's houses. In the winter, they migrate toward the South where it's warmer.
The European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is often regarded as a pest among birdwatchers as it competes with other birds—bluebirds and red-headed woodpeckers in particular—for nesting sites. These birds are very common in cities and farmland, and they tend to gather in immense flocks during the fall and winter.
Rare: Northern Bobwhite
The Northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) is in serious decline. Because of its dwindling numbers, this bird has all but vanished in northern regions and is a rare sight to see in southern states. Northern Bobwhites get their name from their unique call, which sounds like a whistled "bob-white" in springtime across farmland and brushy pastures. They are heard more often than seen, as they often keep within dense low cover, but you may have some luck if you leave out their preferred treat—legumes—in the winter.