Monday, July 15, 2019

26 Backyard Birds to Know | California

[2022 Rewrite]

I've put this resource together for you to answer your question: What birds are in my backyard in California?

This article lists and discusses the identification of the most common birds in your backyard. The birds chosen in this article are compiled from actual data from the citizen science program eBird. Thus, it is more accurate than some other similar articles you may find on the web. I provide pictures of each bird species mentioned. I tell how to attract them to your backyard.


These are the most common backyard birds in California:

  1. House Finch
  2. Black Phoebe
  3. Anna's Hummingbird
  4. American Crow
  5. Mourning Dove
  6. California Scrub-Jay
  7. White-crowned Sparrow
  8. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  9. California Towhee
  10. Song Sparrow
  11. European Starling
  12. Lesser Goldfinch
  13. Bushtit
  14. Spotted Towhee
  15. Dark-eyed Junco
  16. American Robin
  17. Northern Mockingbird
  18. Bewick's Wren
  19. Northern Flicker
  20. Nuttall's Woodpecker
  21. Red-winged Blackbird
  22. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  23. Acorn Woodpecker
  24. Oak Titmouse
  25. Golden-crowned Sparrow
  26. Cliff Swallow




What's in this article?

  • State overview of birds and bird watching in California
  • Photos and identification of common backyard birds
  • Most common birds by season
  • Common birds of Los Angeles, San Francisco, California




California Birds and Birding in California State


eBird lists over 710 types of birds as occurring in the state of California.

The most common bird in California: the most frequently seen bird in the state is House Finch. It is reported on 44% of bird watching lists.

The official State Bird of California is California Quail.

If you are serious about knowing the birds native to California, then check out eBird for California. It has recent sightings and photos, illustrated checklists with weekly abundance bar charts for state, counties, and individual hotspots of the best birding locations.

If you want to know about other people interested in birds in your area, join a local bird group. The American Birding Association maintains a list of bird watching clubs for each state.




Need help choosing your first pair of bird watching binoculars?

I have written several articles on choosing binoculars. Let me save you the trouble of reading them all. I really love my Celestron 8x42 Nature DX ED (purchase with this Amazon affiliate link that supports this blog). They sell for well under $200. You won't have buyer's remorse. 



My other pages for birds in California:

Red, Orange, & Yellow Birds of California

Feeding Winter Birds in California





California Bird Identification (Pictures of backyard birds of California)


This section is the species accounts. These are designed to help you to recognize birds you see in your backyard. I have used eBird to select the birds that are most common. “Common” means the birds seen most often throughout the year, not necessarily the most numerous.

Each species account starts with a photograph. I have tried to use my own personal photographs of each species, if I have them. But I've done my bird photography mostly in the West. Thus, I've had to rely on others for pictures of some common Eastern birds. I always make sure the bird pictures (mine and others) are correctly identified.

In the identification section I am using size and shape and bill type before considering the color or patterns on the birds. I find these more reliable when trying to identify an unknown bird. Pay attention to body and tail shape and especially bill shape of birds you see, not just plumage color.

I have written an article on how to identify birds, it is slightly different from other popular identification methods. Check it out if you wish: 7 Steps to Identify Birds.

In the section on bird feeders and foods I tell how to attract each species. Not all types of backyard birds will come to feeders. But all backyard birds can be attracted with water. So don't forget to add a birdbath to your bird feeding station.

Do you live in Northern California (NorCal}? Southern California (SoCal)? The Bay Area? Coastal California or in the Central Valley? To appear in this article, most birds are widely distributed throughout the state and are often year-round residents. However, for those birds that are more localized in place or time, I list the general region and seasonality. Please see the section following these species accounts for the lists of common species by season.

Even if a species is found in a general area, they occur only in the habitat they prefer. So, the exact habitat of your neighborhood is important for the presence of absence of certain kinds of birds.



1. House Finch

Haemorhous mexicanus

Here is California's most common backyard bird. There are other red finches, but these are the ones most likely in residential areas.


Photo of a House Finch in a bird bath
House Finch. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: House Finches are very common year-round throughout California.

Identification: This is a key species for comparing with an unknown bird. 

Size: About 6 inches from bill tip to tail tip. Larger than goldfinches and chickadees. Smaller than a White-crowned Sparrows or Spotted/Eastern towhees. 

Shape: Medium build with a medium-long notched tail. Round head. 

Bill: Short, conical. 

Color: Brown and gray above with streaks on the sides of the pale underparts. Males with red (sometimes orange or rarely yellow) crown, chest, rump.

Habitat, range & behavior: You'll find small flocks on wires, in short tree tops and in bushes. Originally deserts and grasslands. Rural areas and towns are where they're now most common. 

Formerly found in the western United States and Mexico. Then introduced into the northeastern United States, but now found in nearly all of the lower-48 states and extreme southern Canada. Rare in plains states (Dakotas to Texas) and southern Florida. 

House Finches are not territorial, but males sing throughout the year--a lively, wiry song ending in a couple of buzzy notes.

Food and feeder preference: Attract House Finches with black oil sunflower seeds and tube feeders. May eat from thistle socks.

You may like my in-depth article on attracting House Finches.


2. Black Phoebe

Sayornis nigricans

This perky little backyard flycatcher should be familiar to most California residents.


Photo of a Black Phoebe at a pond
Black Phoebe. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Black Phoebes are found year-round most abundantly in the Central Valley and middle coastal and southern California. Otherwise, they may be found in lower areas away from high mountains.

Identification: 

Size: About the size of a White-crowned Sparrow or Spotted/Eastern towhee. Bigger than a House Finch. Much smaller than a European Starling. 

Shape: Big peaked head, pot belly, long slender tail. 

Bill: About half the length of the head, straight, very wide. 

Color: Sooty black upper parts and upper breast. White belly.

Habitat, range & behavior: Found in lowlands near water, extensive lawns, and grassy backyards. 

Found in the western United States, most of Mexico, south into northern and western South America. 

May build their mud nests on porches or outbuildings. Typical flycatching behavior: sitting still, then sallying out to grab a flying insect, and return to a perch with a bob of the tail.

Food and feeder preference: Black Phoebes eat flying insects that they chase low over the lawn in aerial pursuits. They don't eat at bird feeders, but they need your bird bath to make mud for their nests.


3. Anna's Hummingbird

Calypte anna

California's big resident hummingbird is everywhere there are people!


Photo of Anna's Hummingbird
Anna's Hummingbird. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Anna's Hummingbirds are year-round residents throughout California.

Identification: 

Size: Slightly larger than widespread hummingbirds like Ruby-throated in the east and Rufous Hummingbird in the west. Smaller than a goldfinch or chickadee. 

Shape: Plump, with long wings covering tail. Unmistakable long bill. 

Bill: Longer than head, round, slightly downcurved. 

Color: Green upper parts, gray under parts with greenish cast on sides. Male with entire head and throat covered in iridescent metallic rose pink. Female usually has pink throat spot.

Habitat, range & behavior: Chaparral, open woods, suburban gardens all host this species. 

Formerly only in northern Baja California and southern California they expanded to Arizona, and all the way to southern Alaska along the Pacific coast, following plantings of winter blooming flowers and the popularity of placing out hummingbird feeders. 

Nest early (December to February), even as they colonize northward and encounter snow in winter.

Food and feeder preference: Nectar and small insects is the main food of Anna's Hummingbirds. Both are available in flowering plants. They are quickly attracted to hummingbird feeders filled with sugar water.



Looking for a hummingbird feeder? I have personally been enjoying the easy-to-clean More Birds brand hummingbird feeder. There are several sizes. I like the smaller Ruby model (Amazon affiliate link). Thank you for supporting this website with your purchases!



4. American Crow

Corvus brachyrhynchos

This larger all-black bird is common in cities and country. Its cawing call is familiar to most people.


Photo of American Crow
American Crow. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: American Crows are year-round residents throughout California except high mountains and barren deserts.

Identification: This is a key species for comparing with an unknown bird. 

Size: About 17-1/2 inches long from bill tip to tail tip, though there is much size variation throughout its range. Larger than blackbirds and grackles. Smaller than ravens. 

Shape: Thick neck, large head, rather short square-ended tail. Longer legs. In flight has rounded wing tips with each primary feather separated from others forming "fingers." 

Bill: As long as head, thick, black. 

Color: Glossy black throughout.

Habitat, range & behavior: They prefer open areas with trees, fields, farms, cities. 

They are common across most of the United States lower-48, except in the desert southwest. They move into southern Canada in summer. 

They gather in evening communal roosts in large flocks that may number into the thousands and then move out at dawn into the surrounding area.

Food and feeder preference: Omnivorous, American Crows feed on large insects, grain, small mammals, carrion. You probably don't want these large entirely black birds in your backyard feeders. So don't feed table scraps to birds.


5. Mourning Dove

Zenaida macroura

Mourning Doves are the most widespread and most frequent backyard bird in the Lower 48 states of the United States.


Photo of Mourning Dove in a tree
Mourning Dove. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Mourning Doves are year-round residents throughout most of California but move to lower elevations in winter.

Identification: This is a key species for comparing with an unknown bird. 

Size: About 12 inches long from bill tip to tail tip. About same size as Northern Flicker. Larger than American Robin. Slightly smaller than domestic city pigeon. 

Shape: Very plump with a small round head. Tail is long and pointed. Legs are short. 

Bill: Small and rather slender. 

Color: Pale brown-pink body, darker wings and tail. White edges on side of tail.

Habitat, range & behavior: Semi-open areas such as urban areas, farmlands, woods. Often seen perched on wires, fences. 

It is a resident across the lower-48 states and Mexico, with some movement out of northern areas in winter. 

Their mournful cooing is a familiar spring birdsong.

Food and feeder preference: Mourning Doves eat seeds almost exclusively. Attract with black oil sunflower seeds on a large sturdy tray feeder or on the ground.


6. California Scrub-Jay

Aphelocoma californica

This is California's common lowland jay, brash and noisy.


Photo of California Scrub-Jay hopping in the lawn
California Scrub-Jay. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: California Scrub-Jays are year-round residents found below the mountains and west of the deserts.

Identification: 

Size: This bird is the size of an American Robin or Northern Mockingbird. They are larger than a European Starling or Red-winged Blackbird. Smaller than a Mourning Dove. 

Shape: Strong body, thick neck, big head. Long legs. Fairly long full tail. 

Bill: Long, stout, curved near tip. 

Color: Deep azure blue upperparts, wings and tail with gray-brown back. Black bill and mask. White under parts with partial blue necklace across chest.

Habitat, range & behavior: Oak woodlands, chaparral, residential areas. 

Found along West Coast from northern Baja California to Washington state. 

They forage on the ground, caching food in fall to save for later winter.

Food and feeder preference: California Scrub-Jays are omnivorous; they eat insects, berries, small animals, bird eggs. At hopper and tray feeders they may harass other birds, and gulp down large quantities of black oil sunflower seeds and peanuts to go bury. Thus, some people put wire mesh cages over their hopper and tube feeders to keep the jays out--smaller birds can get through the mesh.


7. White-crowned Sparrow

Zonotrichia leucophrys

A common winter visitor to backyards throughout the United States.


Photo of White-crowned Sparrow in Douglas-fir
White-crowned Sparrow. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: White-crowned Sparrows have 3 breeding populations and an additional form in winter. Year-round residents live on the northern and central California coast, and in the northern High Sierras. A widespread northern form winters abundantly throughout California, October to April.

Identification: This is a key species for comparing with an unknown bird. 

Size: About 7 inches. A large sparrow near size of Spotted/Eastern towhee. Larger than House Finch. Smaller than Starling or Red-winged Blackbird. 

Shape: Longer plump body, round head, long tail. 

Bill: Short and conical. 

Color: Brown back, wings, tail, gray under parts, black-and-white striped crown. For their first year immature birds have tan and reddish-brown striped crowns.

Habitat, range & behavior: Open and shrubby areas. 

Various forms breed across the Arctic Canada and Alaska and in mountains in western Canada and the United States. 

They sing in spring migration as they move northward. Different populations have slightly different songs.

Food and feeder preference: White-crowned Sparrows eat weed seeds, grain, insects. Attract with black oil sunflower seeds and other seeds on hopper and tray feeders.



Wagner's Songbird Supreme bird seed is my favorite for attracting the most kind of birds to my feeder. If it isn't available, a close second is Wagner's Greatest Variety. These are Amazon affiliate links that help support this blog. Thank you.



8. Yellow-rumped Warbler

Setophaga coronata

An abundant winter visitor in California to treetops and weedy areas.


Photo of Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Yellow-rumped Warblers breed in the higher mountains and winter throughout the state.

Identification: 

Size: Small, they are a bit larger than chickadees and goldfinches. They are smaller than House Finches and juncos. 

Shape: Plump and neckless with a shorter tail. 

Bill: Short, slender, straight, pointed. 

Color: Breeding plumage in spring is blue-gray on the upper parts, black sides and chest, yellow rump, yellow on sides. Two forms: western form with yellow throat and large white wing patch; eastern and northern form with white throat and two white wing bars. In winter plumage both forms are gray-brown above, pale cream below. Yellow rump and white tail corners in flight.

Habitat, range & behavior: In breeding season mostly in coniferous or mixed forests, in mountains in west. In winter open areas with fruiting shrubs and scattered trees. 

Breed across Canada and Alaska and in conifer forests in the west. Winter along both coasts and the southern states through Middle America. There are also non-migratory forms in Mexico and Guatemala. 

They tend to forage in outer branches about halfway up the tree.

Food and feeder preference: Yellow-rumped Warblers eat mainly insects in the summer. They switch to waxy berries and fruit in winter. They are thus able to winter farther north than other warblers. They are attracted to suet feeders.


9. California Towhee

Melozone crissalis

This is a plain but common bird in California.


Photo of California Towhee
California Towhee. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: California Towhees are year-round residents mostly below the high mountains and west of the deserts.

Identification: 

Size: Longer than a European Starling or Red-winged Blackbird. Smaller than an American Robin. Larger than Spotted/Eastern towhees. 

Shape: Large heavy sparrow with short neck, large head, large full tail. 

Bill: Short, stout, conical. 

Color: Dusty brown with rusty under tail coverts.

Habitat, range & behavior: Found in chaparral scrub from Baja California Sur to SW Oregon. 

Scratches among leaf litter on ground to find food. 

Unlike many chaparral birds, when the residential landscape encroached, rather than flee, it moved right into the backyard!

Food and feeder preference: California Towhees eat primarily seeds and insects. They will eat mixed seeds in a tray feeder or on the ground under the feeder.


10. Song Sparrow

Melospiza melodia

A common bird, but variable, and similar to many other streaked brown sparrows.


Photo of Song Sparrow in bush
Song Sparrow. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Song Sparrows are year-round residents throughout, except the southern deserts. Northern birds, breeding in Canada, winter throughout, including the southern deserts.

Identification: 

Size: A smaller bird, similar in size to House Finch and juncos. Larger than chickadees and goldfinches. Smaller than White-crowned Sparrows or Spotted/Eastern towhees. 

Shape: Plump with round head, long rounded tail. 

Bill: Short, conical. 

Color: Highly variable in darkness and color saturation across its range (dark rusty to pale gray). Generally gray-brown above with dark brown streaking on back. Complicated head pattern. Streaking on sides and breast converge into dense central breast spot.

Habitat, range & behavior: Thickets, especially near water. Backyard shrubbery. 

Resident in western United States, western Canada, coastal southern Alaska, northeastern US. In summer also moves into mid-Canada and northern half of US. In the winter found in most of the US lower-48. Also, a population in central Mexico.

Forages on ground, never far from low cover to which they fly if startled.

Food and feeder preference: Song Sparrows feed on seeds and insects near the ground. Will visit hopper and tray feeders for mixed bird seed.



11. European Starling

Sturnus vulgaris

Introduced to North America in the late 1800's, they crossed the continent, often to the detriment of native cavity-nesting birds. The prime example of an invasive species.


Photo of European Starling
European Starling. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: European Starlings are year-round residents throughout the state.

Identification: 

Size: About the size of a Red-winged Blackbird. Smaller than an American Robin. Larger than a White-crowned Sparrow or Spotted/Eastern towhee. 

Shape: Stocky with large head, short square-ended tail. Longer legs. 

Bill: As long as head. Sharp pointed. Yellow in spring, otherwise dark. 

Color: They are grayish brown much of the year, with glossy iridescence and white spotting during the spring.

Habitat, range & behavior: Lowland birds that need trees large enough for nest cavities but plenty of open area for feeding. They are most abundant in urban and suburban areas where they find food and artificial nest cavities. 

Resident from coast-to-coast from southern Canada to northern Mexico. In summer north across Canada and Alaska. Native range is Europe to Pakistan, north Africa. 

Often viewed as a pest, starlings often bully other backyard birds, taking over bird feeders, and stealing nest cavities from smaller native birds. 

In winter they can form into flocks of tens of thousands.

Food and feeder preference: European Starlings eat primarily insects when available, often feeding on the ground. Discourage them from your backyard hopper and tray feeders by never feeding birds table scraps (including bread or meat). They have weak feet and do not perch well on tube feeders. A cage mesh around smaller hopper feeders may keep them out.


12. Lesser Goldfinch

Spinus psaltria

This common bird replaces American Goldfinch in drier parts of the southwestern US.


Photo of Lesser Goldfinch in willow
Lesser Goldfinch. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Lesser Goldfinches are year-round residents except in highest northern mountains.

Identification: 

Size: A small bird. Slightly smaller than American Goldfinch, but close. 

Shape: Big head, neckless, short forked tail. 

Bill: Short, small, conical. 

Color: Green back, yellow underparts including under tail coverts. Black wings and tail with white marks. Male with black cap on forecrown. Keeps the same bright yellow plumage year-round, unlike American Goldfinch.

Habitat, range & behavior: Open scrubby woodlands of oak or other trees, fields, grasslands. 

Found in the western and southwestern US, into the Great Basin in summer. Found southward to Middle America. 

They sometimes gather into flocks of hundreds to feed in weedy fields.

Food and feeder preference: Lesser Goldfinches eat mostly thistle seeds, some insects. At your feeder they will eat black oil sunflower seeds at a tube feeder but quickly attracted to Niger seeds in a "thistle sock" feeder.


13. Bushtit

Psaltriparus minimus

You may find the nests of these birds about 6-8 feet off the ground under the lower limbs of conifers or similar bushy tree. Nests look like an old white sock hanging in the tree. They are made of lichens and similar plant material and hair, held together by spider webs.


Photo of a flock of Bushtits on a suet feeder
Bushtits. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Bushtits are year-round residents in much of the state but absent from high mountains and southern deserts.

Identification: 

Size: Bushtits are tiny birds. Near the size of a hummingbird. Smaller than a goldfinch or chickadee. 

Shape: Plump with a round head and long rounded tail. 

Bill: Short, straight, stout. 

Color: Gray throughout with a browner head. Interior birds are paler.

Habitat, range & behavior: Found in open woods, scrub, chaparral. 

Bushtits are birds of the western United States and Mexico. 

During most of the year they are found in large twittering flocks. They fly weakly, single file, from bush to bush.

Food and feeder preference: Bushtits eat many types of insects. Find them in winter in shrubs up next to houses. To attract them to your backyard, offer a suet block.


14. Spotted Towhee

Pipilo maculatus

Look for this bird scratching in the leaf litter under bushes at the edge of your yard.


Photo of a Spotted Towhee on a rock
Spotted Towhee. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Spotted Towhees are year-round residents in most areas but leave the mountains in winter and leave the deserts in summer.

Identification: 

Size: A large sparrow, slightly larger than a White-crowned Sparrow. Larger than a House Finch. Smaller than a starling. 

Shape: A plump, large-headed sparrow with a full rounded tail. 

Bill: Short, pointed, conical. 

Color: Black above including hood. Variable number of white spots on back and wings depending upon location. White tail corners. White belly. Rusty orange sides. Red eye. Females paler, more brownish.

Habitat, range & behavior: Found in brushy areas, chaparral, mountain forest understory. 

Found throughout the western half of the United States, mountains of Mexico. In summer to southwestern Canada. In winter to Texas. 

They scratch for food on the ground, turning over leaf litter under bushes.

Food and feeder preference: Spotted Towhees eat insects, seeds, and berries. At your birdfeeder will eat seeds on ground or platform feeder.


15. Dark-eyed Junco

Junco hyemalis

Colloquially called "snowbirds," these common birds often arrive in backyards in winter from nearby mountain forests or more northern climes.


Photo of Dark-eyed Junco on a railing
Dark-eyed Junco. Photo by Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Dark-eyed Juncos breed in high mountains and coastal conifers the length of the state; they winter throughout.

Identification: 

Size: Small birds about the size of a House Finch. 

Shape: Round body, short neck, round head, fairly long square-ended tail. 

Bill: Short, pointed, conical, pink. 

Color: Eastern birds are a darker all-gray with white belly. Western birds (those breeding in California and pictured above) have jet black hood over their head, brown back, white belly and pink sides. Females paler.

Habitat, range & behavior: Breed in coniferous forests. Winters widely. Avoids heavy brush, preferring widely spaced bushes. 

Breeds across most of Canada, Alaska, and the western half of the United States. Winters from southern Canada and all of the lower 48-states to extreme northern Mexico. 

Spend much of their time hopping and feeding on the ground.

Food and feeder preference: Dark-eyed Juncos eat mostly seeds, also insects in summer. Readily feed at backyard feeders on mixed seeds on hopper or tray feeders and ground.

You may like my in-depth article on attracting Dark-eyed Juncos.


16. American Robin

Turdus migratorius

This familiar backyard bird is a resident in the northern half of the United States and a common winter visitor in the southern half.


Photo of American Robin
American Robin. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: American Robins breed in the mountains and in the northern part of the state; they winter throughout, including deserts near water, and lawns anywhere.

Identification: This is a key species for comparing with an unknown bird. 

Size: 10 inches long from bill tip to tail tip. About the same size as a Blue Jay or one of the Scrub-Jays. Larger than Red-winged Blackbird. Smaller than a Mourning Dove. 

Shape: Very plump with a fairly long tail. 

Bill: Straight and fairly slender, curved at the tip. 

Color: Gray-brown upperparts, rusty orange breast.

Habitat, range & behavior: Open woodlands, farmlands, urban parks and lawns. 

Migratory, breeds north across Alaska and Canada. Resident in most of the United States (lower 48). Winters in the United States, Mexico, to central America. 

Hops on your lawn turning head this way and that looking for food. Their caroling song is one of the early signs of spring in the north.

Food and feeder preference: American Robins eat earthworms and other invertebrates in the lawn. May eat fruit from a tray feeder or the ground. Eat small berries from trees and bushes.


17. Northern Mockingbird

Mimus polyglotos

This backyard bird sings from exposed perches most of the year and often through the night. They have an unending supply of their own unique short phrases that they repeat about 3 times each, but frequently intersperse songs of other birds.


Photo of Northern Mockingbird on the ground
Northern Mockingbird. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Northern Mockingbirds are year-round residents throughout much of California. They are absent from conifer forests and mountains. In summer some birds are found farther north.

Identification: 

Size: The length of an American Robin. 

Shape: Slender and long-tailed. Long legs. 

Bill: Medium length, slender, slightly curved. 

Color: Gray, darker above, with white patches in wing and tail.

Habitat, range & behavior: They prefer edge habitat with scattered trees and bushes, parks and residential areas. 

They are found in eastern and southern parts of the US, West Indies, and south into Mexico.

They boldly defend their nests from other birds, cats, and intruders.

Food and feeder preference: Northern Mockingbirds eat insects, berries, and fruit. You may attract mockingbirds to your feeder with grapes, raisins, apple slices. They will come to a suet block. They readily use a bird bath.


18. Bewick's Wren

Thryomanes bewickii

This is a brush-loving bird that may hide in your backyard hedges.


Photo of Bewick's Wren on stick
Bewick's Wren. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Bewick's Wrens are year-round resident throughout most of California. They are winter visitors only in the southeastern deserts.

Identification:

Size: These are fairly small birds, about the size of House Finches.

Shape: They are rather stocky, with short neck, long floppy tail, fairly long legs.

Bill: Long, thin, slightly curved.

Color: Different populations can be more gray or more brown. Barred brown and black tail. Pale gray under parts. The white eyebrow is diagnostic.

Habitat, range, and behavior: These birds are found in brushy tangles, chaparral, backyard bushes.

These birds live along the West Coast from southern British Columba southward into Mexico, the Southwest, east to Missouri.

They stay hidden in dense brush except in spring when they sing loudly from exposed perches.

Food and feeder preference: Bewick's Wrens eat primarily insects and invertebrates. They will come to feeders in winter for suet.


19. Northern Flicker

Colaptes auratus

This common ant-eating woodpecker spends a lot of time hopping and probing on the ground of your yard. This behavior confuses many beginners who don't know what to make of the long bill, red wing linings, and white rump. When the males drum loudly on their downspouts at dawn in spring, then they know it's a woodpecker!


Photo of Northern Flicker on stump
Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Northern Flickers are year-round residents throughout most of California. They are summer residents only in parts of the Central Valley. They are winter visitors only in the southeastern deserts.

Identification: 

Size: About the size of a Mourning Dove. Larger than a robin. 

Shape: Stocky with short legs, short tail, big head. 

Bill: As long as head, thin, slightly curved. 

Color: Back is brown with black bars. Under parts pinkish with black spots. Undersides of black wing and tail feathers are bright salmon red (West) or yellow (East). Head gray (West) or brown (East) and males with red (West) or black (East) whisker marks and nape marks (East). Black crescent across chest. White rump seen in flight.

Habitat, range & behavior: Found in woodland edges and forests. 

Year-round resident from extreme southern Canada, across all of the lower-48 states and in the mountains of Mexico and Middle America. In summer breeds northward well into Canada and Alaska. 

Frequently noted hopping on ground pecking in the ground for insects. In late spring, males proclaim their territory by rapid pounding on a hollow tree branch, though the ringing of metal downspouts at dawn is louder and carries much farther, to the exasperation of anyone trying to sleep inside!

Food and feeder preference: Ants and beetles are their primary foods. Will eat black oil sunflower seeds and are attracted to suet.


20. Nuttall's Woodpecker

Picoides nuttalli

This woodpecker is nearly endemic to California. They extend only a few miles into Mexico, south of San Diego.


Photo of Nuttall's Woodpecker on branch
Nuttall's Woodpecker. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Nuttall's Woodpeckers are year-round residents throughout much of California, below the mountains, and west of the southern deserts. They are also absent in the damp northwestern conifer coastal region.

Identification:

Size: These are small woodpeckers, smaller than Acorn Woodpecker, smaller than an American Robin.

Shape: Stocky. Short neck. Short pointed tail. Strong feet.

Bill: Short stout pointed bill, shorter than head.

Color: Black above with many white bars on back and wings. Under parts white with many black bars and spots on sides and flanks. Tail black with white outer tail feathers. Face predominantly black with two white lines back from eye and back from bill. Red hind crown on male.

Habitat, range, and behavior: Found in oak chaparral and riparian sycamore trees. Common in residential areas within that habitat.

Range from northern California to southern California and into Mexico south of San Diego. West of deserts.

Food and feeder preference: Nuttall's Woodpeckers feed on invertebrates and acorns. Will come to platform feeders for sunflower seeds and nuts.


21. Red-winged Blackbird

Agelaius phoeniceus

These noisy flocking birds are most often found in marshes. But in winter they are found in backyards.


Photo of singing Red-winged Blackbird
Male Red-winged Blackbird. Greg Gillson.


Photo of female Red-winged Blackbird in tree
Female Red-winged Blackbird. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Red-winged Blackbirds are year-round residents throughout California.

Identification: This is a key species for comparing with an unknown bird.

Size: About 8-3/4 inches long from bill tip to tail tip. About the size of a Northern Cardinal. Smaller than an American Robin.

Shape: Pot-bellied with a longer bill and flat forehead. Tail average.

Bill: Long and sharp pointed.

Color: Males are black with red and yellow shoulder patch. Females are streaked brown and rusty (sparrow-like but pointed bill and flat forehead).

Habitat, range, and behavior: Cattail marshes and wetlands are their summer habitat. In winter they feed in grain fields.

They breed across most of the North American continent. In winter they withdraw from most of Alaska and Canada.

They are found in colonies in summer and large flocks in winter.

Food and feeder preference: They eat insects in summer. In winter they eat grain and seeds. They visit feeders, more often in large winter flocks, and eat most seeds and suet.


22. Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Regulus calendula

These tiny little hyperactive balls of feathers are very similar in appearance to sluggish Hutton's Vireos. Note the yellow feet and skinny black legs of the kinglet.


Photo of Ruby-crowned Kinglet on twigs
Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Ruby-crowned Kinglets nest in the high mountains of northeastern California. They leave those mountains in the winter and are found everywhere else in the state in the non-breeding season.

Identification:

Size: Smaller than a chickadee or goldfinch.

Shape: Plump, almost round body with round head merging into the body almost without neck. Very short tail. Thin legs.

Bill: Very short, rather thin.

Color: Olive-green, tending toward gray, especially on the head. Paler yellow-green below. Wing gray with yellow-green edges to the wing feathers. Two white wing bars with distinctive black panel below the lower wing panel. White eye ring slightly broken on top and bottom. Red crown of male only shows when agitated. Legs very thin, black, with obvious yellow soles to the feet.

Habitat, range, and behavior: Mountain conifers in summer, brushy patches and chaparral in winter. Residential landscaping hedges and bushes.

Breeds in Alaska, across Canada, and mountains of the West. Migrates through all of US. Winters in coastal East, Southeast, West, into Mexico.

Active flitting from branch to branch, in interior of bushes and small trees, in short flap-hops. Constantly twitches wings. Hover-gleans at leaf tips.

Food and feeder preference: Ruby-crowned Kinglets feed in bushes next to house looking for spiders and insects. May eat at suet feeder.


23. Acorn Woodpecker

Melanerpes formicivorus

Did you know that this bird is the basis for the cartoon Woody Woodpecker? Just add a crest!


Photo of Acorn Woodpecker on post
Acorn Woodpecker. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Acorn Woodpeckers are year-round residents in oak woodlands in California, below the high mountains, west of the southern deserts.

Identification:

Size: These birds are a bit bigger than European Starlings with which they compete for nest holes. Much smaller than Northern Flickers.

Shape: Stocky with large head and bill. Short tail. Short legs; large strong feet.

Bill: About as long as head. Stout, straight, and pointed.

Color: Black back, wings, tail. White rump. White wing patches. White under parts with black band across chest with streaks down sides. Face white with black chin and hind head. Male has red crown; female has black crown and red hind-crown.

Habitat, range, and behavior: Found in large stands of mature oaks, pine/oak woodlands.

Found from western Oregon, south through California, mountains of Arizona, New Mexico, Big Bend area of west Texas, south in mountains of Mexico.

Small colonies tend a granary tree where they store and defend tens-of-thousands of acorns, wedged into the bark.

Food and feeder preference: Acorn Woodpeckers may visit bird feeders for sunflower seeds, suet, and nuts.


24. Oak Titmouse

Baeolophus inornatus

These are plain gray birds of oak woodlands. In fact, not long ago their name was Plain Titmouse, before they were divided into two species--the Oak Titmouse and the Juniper Titmouse.


Photo of Oak Titmouse in tree top
Oak Titmouse. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Oak Titmice are year-round residents below the high mountains, west of the southern deserts, away from the treeless Central Valley, and away from the damp northwestern coastal region.

Identification:

Size: These are smaller birds, the size of chickadees.

Shape: They are shaped as chickadees, but more stout. The crest can be raised or lowered and is not always very noticeable.

Bill: Short and stout.

Color: Pale gray-brown throughout.

Habitat, range, and behavior: Found in oak woodlands, especially live-oaks.

These birds are found from southwestern Oregon, through California, to northern Baja California.

They slowly crawl and hop through dense twigs, often twisting and reaching their necks. Do not flip their tails around as much as chickadees.

Food and feeder preference: Will eat sunflower seeds and nuts from hopper feeders.


25. Golden-crowned Sparrow

Zonotrichia atricapilla

In winter, Golden-crowned Sparrows have a dully striped crown, very similar to the brown-and-tan crown pattern of White-crowned Sparrows in their first winter.


Photo of Golden-crowned Sparrow on bush
Golden-crowned Sparrow. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Golden-crowned Sparrows are winter visitors throughout most of California except for the southeastern deserts.

Identification:

Size: These are the same size as White-crowned Sparrows, a larger sparrow.

Shape: These are the same shape as White-crowned Sparrows. They are fairly large and long-tailed sparrows.

Bill: Short and stout conical bill. Dark colored.

Color: Tan brown above and striped with dark brown and pale gray on the back. Under parts gray with buff warm tones on the flanks. Breeding crown has yellow center (dull in winter) outlined with black. In winter the crown is finely streaked brown with a yellow tinge on the fore crown.

Habitat, range, and behavior: Boreal and tree line for breeding. In winter, tangles in woodland edges, brushy roadside edges with small saplings.

These sparrows breed from Alaska to southern British Columbia. They spend the winter from southern British Columbia to northern Baja California.

They tend to spend the winters in flocks with White-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. They come out into the open to feed on the ground, such as a road edge, then flush back to into the tangles when disturbed.

Food and feeder preference: They eat more buds and plant material than White-crowned Sparrows. Attract with black oil sunflower seeds at hopper and platform feeders.


26. Cliff Swallow

Petrochelidon pyrrhonota

These common colonial-nesting birds build gourd-shaped mud nests on cliffs, under the eaves of barns, and under highway overpasses. You will most often notice them in flight.


Photo of Cliff Swallow on fence wire
Cliff Swallow. Greg Gillson.


Range in California: Cliff Swallows are summer residents throughout California, except spring and fall migrants only in the southeastern deserts.

Identification:

Size: Small birds, smaller than House Finches, larger than American Goldfinches.

Shape: In flight note round head, short square tail, pointed wings.

Bill: Short, wide.

Color: Dark blue back with pale stripes, dark wings and tail. Pale under parts. Large buff rump patch. Crown dark blue. Throat dark rusty. White forehead.

Habitat, range, and behavior: Fly over open country, canyons, farmlands.

In summer they occur nearly everywhere from Alaska and Canada southward through Mexico. Leave entire region in winter.

Fly high chasing bugs, skimming over ponds, trapping them against cliffs. In spring you may note them at mud puddles scooping up bills full of mud to build their nests. In fall migration more likely to be noted on roadside wires.

Food and feeder preference: Feed on flying insects. Do not occur at feeder.





Common Birds in California (Lists of most common feeder birds and most common backyard birds by season)


To determine how common each species is I used the data from actual bird sightings from the citizen science program eBird. Birds are listed by frequency. That is, how often the species is recorded on checklists submitted to eBird (a percentage).

When choosing the birds to include in this article I leaned strongly to birds that are present throughout the year in good numbers. Thus, many of the common birds are year-round residents. This means that they live in the same location all year. They raise their young in your neighborhood. They don't migrate. Or if the species does migrate, the ones living in your area don't. If this is the case, some migrants may move into your area during certain times of year, adding to the same species that are in your yard full time.

Some migrant birds visit your yard during the “summer.” Often, they arrive in spring and remain until late fall. They nest and raise their young in your neighborhood. These are the summer residents.

Other migrant birds visit your backyard during the “winter.” Some of these winter visitors may arrive in July and remain into April. Others may only be found in the cold of December or January. They key here is that they nest and raise their young somewhere else. They only visit your yard in the non-breeding season.

Migration is an amazing spectacle. There will be birds that fly through your region in spring or fall (or both). They may visit your backyard only a few days or weeks a year. They aren't regular enough, or stay long enough, to be included in this article. But the number of briefly visiting migrant birds could double the number of species presented here. You may see them over time. Consult checklists in eBird for your county to see what is possible.

I have generally excluded common waterfowl, birds of prey, shorebirds, seabirds, and others that aren't usually found in residential areas. But they may certainly fly over or be seen regularly if your home is on a shoreline, for instance.

The following list is the backyard birds that are, on average, most common throughout the entire year. The list is ordered by most common based on the frequency of how often each species is recorded on checklists submitted to eBird.


Most common backyard birds in California throughout the year


The following list is the backyard birds that are, on average, most common throughout the entire year. The list is ordered by most common based on the frequency of how often birds are recorded on checklists submitted to eBird.

The most common backyard birds throughout the year in the state of California, in order, are these:

  1. House Finch (44% frequency)
  2. Black Phoebe (40%)
  3. Anna's Hummingbird (38%)
  4. American Crow (35%)
  5. Mourning Dove (34%)
  6. California Scrub-Jay (32%)
  7. White-crowned Sparrow (29%)
  8. Yellow-rumped Warbler (28%)
  9. California Towhee (28%)
  10. Song Sparrow (27%)
  11. European Starling (25%)
  12. Lesser Goldfinch (24%)
  13. Bushtit (22%)
  14. Spotted Towhee (21%)
  15. Dark-eyed Junco (20%)
  16. American Robin (20%)
  17. Northern Mockingbird (20%)
  18. Bewick's Wren (18%)
  19. Northern Flicker (18%)
  20. Nuttall's Woodpecker (17%)
  21. Red-winged Blackbird (17%)
  22. Ruby-crowned Kinglet (16%)
  23. Acorn Woodpecker (16%)
  24. Oak Titmouse (15%)


Most common backyard birds in California in winter


Winters are mild in much of the state. Many northern birds migrate to California for the winter. Yellow-rumped Warblers, White-crowned Sparrows, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Dark-eyed Juncos join the list of common backyard birds in winter, though each of these also nest in the mountains and northern parts of California, too. But they are supplemented in winter by individuals from as far away as Alaska.

The following list is the backyard birds that are most common in winter. The list is ordered by most common based on the frequency of how often birds are recorded on checklists submitted to eBird.


The most common backyard birds in California in winter (December to February) are these:

  1. Yellow-rumped Warbler (44% frequency)
  2. Black Phoebe (44%)
  3. White-crowned Sparrow (42%)
  4. House Finch (39%)
  5. Anna's Hummingbird (39%)
  6. American Crow (36%)
  7. California Scrub-Jay (31%)
  8. Ruby-crowned Kinglet (29%)
  9. Mourning Dove (28%)
  10. California Towhee (26%)
  11. European Starling (24%)
  12. Song Sparrow (24%)
  13. Dark-eyed Junco (24%)
  14. Northern Flicker (22%)
  15. American Robin (22%)
  16. Golden-crowned Sparrow (21%)
  17. Lesser Goldfinch (20%)


Most common backyard birds in California in summer


The most frequent summer backyard birds in California are primarily resident birds, though there are many migrants that come up from spending the winter in Mexico. These migrants are primarily insect-eaters and are more common in the forests than in lowland residential areas.

The following list is the backyard birds that are most common in summer. The list is ordered by most common based on the frequency of how often birds are recorded on checklists submitted to eBird.


The most common backyard birds in California during the summer (June to July) are these:

  1. House Finch (42% frequency)
  2. Mourning Dove (39%)
  3. Black Phoebe (31%)
  4. Anna's Hummingbird (30%)
  5. American Crow (29%)
  6. California Scrub-Jay (28%)
  7. California Towhee (27%)
  8. Song Sparrow (27%)
  9. Lesser Goldfinch (26%)
  10. Spotted Towhee (24%)
  11. American Robin (24%)
  12. Cliff Swallow (20%)
  13. Bushtit (20%)
  14. Dark-eyed Junco (20%)
  15. Northern Mockingbird (20%)





Common backyard birds of Los Angeles, California


Photo of Northern Mockingbird on the lawn
Northern Mockingbird. Greg Gillson.


The common backyard birds of southern California (SoCal) are similar, whether you are in Los Angeles, Riverside, anywhere in Orange County or the San Fernando Valley, and even San Diego.

The following list uses eBird data to create a list of common backyard birds in Los Angeles. The city of Los Angeles is in Los Angeles County. I will use the data for Los Angeles County to represent the birds of the Los Angeles area.

These are the most common backyard birds throughout the year in Los Angeles, California:

  1. House Finch (61% frequency)
  2. Mourning Dove (54%)
  3. Black Phoebe (50%)
  4. Anna's Hummingbird (44%)
  5. American Crow (41%)
  6. Northern Mockingbird (39%)
  7. Yellow-rumped Warbler (39%)
  8. Lesser Goldfinch (39%)
  9. California Towhee (38%)
  10. Bushtit (35%)
  11. California Scrub-Jay (34%)
  12. Allen's Hummingbird (33%)  Learn about this species on eBird
  13. White-crowned Sparrow (30%)
  14. House Sparrow (27%)
  15. European Starling (27%)
  16. Song Sparrow (25%)
  17. Rock Pigeon (24%)  Learn about this species on eBird
  18. Spotted Towhee (21%)
  19. Bewick's Wren (20%)
  20. Nuttall's Woodpecker (20%)


There are a couple of birds that are more common in Los Angeles than in the state as a whole. The Mockingbird is especially common in southern California backyards. Allen's Hummingbird is restricted to the coastal strip the length of the state, but there is a resident population in southern California.
Farther north in California, Allen's Hummingbirds are only spring and summer birds. Bushtit is a resident in California, but more common in the coastal sage scrub habitat surrounding residential areas in Los Angeles and southern California. They are common backyard birds.




Common backyard birds of San Francisco, California


Photo of Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Greg Gillson.


This list of common birds should be about the same whether you are in San Francisco, San Jose, or anywhere in the Bay Area

These are the most common backyard birds throughout the year in San Francisco, California:

  1. Anna's Hummingbird (54%)
  2. White-crowned Sparrow (50%)
  3. Black Phoebe (41%)
  4. Song Sparrow (40%)
  5. House Finch (40%)
  6. America Robin (38%)
  7. Rock Pigeon (37%)  Learn about this species on eBird
  8. Yellow-rumped Warbler (32%)
  9. Dark-eyed Junco (32%)
  10. Pygmy Nuthatch (31%)  Learn about this species on eBird
  11. American Crow (30%)
  12. Chestnut-backed Chickadee (29%)  Learn about this species on eBird
  13. California Towhee (28%)
  14. California Scrub-Jay (26%)
  15. European Starling (24%)
  16. Golden-crowned Sparrow (22%)
  17. Brewer's Blackbird (21%)  Learn about this species on eBird
  18. Townsend's Warbler (20%)  Learn about this species on eBird
  19. Bushtit (20%)


Chestnut-backed Chickadees reach south to the redwoods in San Francisco, but not much farther. The cool, damp conditions and resulting shrubs and bushes allow Dark-eyed Juncos to be common backyard birds, as well. I was really surprised at the Pygmy Nuthatches, though. These are birds of mature ponderosa pine forests in the mountains of the west. I was surprised to learn they are a backyard feeder birds in areas of San Francisco where Monterey pines occur.

Lesser Goldfinches prefer inland oak savanna or chaparral. Thus, they are not a common bird in San Francisco. Surprisingly, Mourning Doves are found on less than 20% of checklists in San Francisco while they are much more common in the state as a whole, and Los Angeles especially.





Common Backyard Birds of Sacramento, California


The common backyard birds of the Central Valley, including Sacramento, Fresno, and Bakersfield are similar.

The following list uses eBird data to create a list of common backyard birds in Sacramento. The city of Sacramento is in Sacramento County. I will use the data for Sacramento County to represent the birds of the Sacramento area.

Here are the most common backyard birds throughout the year in Sacramento:

  1. California Scrub-Jay (60% frequency)
  2. Mourning Dove (57%)
  3. Black Phoebe (57%)
  4. House Finch (55%)
  5. Anna's Hummingbird (48%)
  6. American Crow (43%)
  7. European Starling (42%)
  8. Yellow-rumped Warbler (41%)
  9. Northern Mockingbird (38%)
  10. Nuttall's Woodpecker (37%)
  11. Lesser Goldfinch (34%)
  12. Bushtit (34%)
  13. Oak Titmouse (34%)
  14. White-crowned Sparrow (34%)
  15. Northern Flicker (31%)
  16. Spotted Towhee (31%)
  17. American Robin (29%)
  18. White-breasted Nuthatch (26%)  Learn about this species on eBird
  19. Bewick's Wren (25%)
  20. Ruby-crowned Kinglet (25%)
  21. California Towhee (23%)
  22. Red-winged Blackbird (23%)
  23. Golden-crowned Sparrow (21%)
  24. American Goldfinch (21%)  Learn about this species on eBird
  25. Rock Pigeon (20%)  Learn about this species on eBird
  26. Tree Swallow (20%)  Learn about this species on eBird
  27. Western Bluebird (20%)  Learn about this species on eBird


You will notice several common birds in the Sacramento area that don't appear on the backyard list for the state as a whole. They occur throughout the state but less frequently. I link out to eBird so you can find out more about these birds, if you wish.




Related: 34 of the most common birds in the United States (with photos)

Feeding winter birds in California

Red, Orange, & Yellow birds of California

Please also check out my recommended products page. There I maintain a list of the best feeders, bird foods, binoculars, bird baths, fountains, books and other bird watching items.






10 comments:

  1. I had my front door open this morning and a male house finch flew inside while I had my back turned. I heard it flapping against the vertical blinds. I also have two Siberian Huskies and the younger one was quite interested, and I had to try to capture the finch without hurting it, and keeping the dogs away. After three attempts at letting him alight and get calm, I grabbed a facemask to drape over his wings. I softly rubbed the top of his head and spoke to him as I walked him outside. Once released, another came swooping after him as he veered off beyond an orange tree. Neat experience.

    ReplyDelete
  2. We have noticed brilliant bluebirds this Spring on the Central Coast. Don't believe I'd seen them before.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Could be Western Bluebirds or Lazuli Buntings. Very similar in plumage, but the bunting will visit your seed feeder.

      The bluebirds are resident, the buntings are migrating now.

      Delete
    2. I have a pair of Western bluebirds nesting in a birdhouse in my backyard. I’m in Arroyo Grande.

      Delete
    3. So wonderful!

      Delete
  3. I twice got a glimpse of a bird in my Sothern Californian backyard. It's yellow color caught my eye, so did the long tail. Overall it was larger than a dove and very shy. So beautiful that I can't forget about it and wonder what it was. I am pretty sure it was not a parrot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I suspect it might be Cassin's Kingbird. They are common only from Los Angeles area southward.

      I wrote an article on common yellow birds in California, here:

      https://www.whatbirdsareinmybackyard.com/2021/08/red-birds-orange-birds-yellow-birds-california-photos.html

      Delete
  4. Your list is better than any book Ive found.

    ReplyDelete

Thank you so much for visiting! Would you please leave a comment to let me know what you thought and how I can make this resource better for you?

--Greg--

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