One of the best things about birds is that they’re everywhere. (Seriously, there are even records of the South Polar Skua at, you guessed it, the South Pole.) And even though many people don’t realize it, they see and hear a wide variety of birds every day while going about their daily lives—grabbing their mail, outside their work windows, on their morning run, watching their kid’s soccer game . . . everywhere.
Despite birds being all over the place, many people's ability to identify them begins with the American Robin and ends with the Rock Pigeon. This list covers many of the other birds you are likely to see on a regular basis, especially during the winter time. It’s composed of the 10 most-reported birds from the 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count and the 13 most-common feeder species, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The species here can be seen in urban, suburban, and rural spaces, and the majority frequent backyards and feeders. So, whether you’re preparing for your first GBBC or just want to know what that little bird in the bushes is, this primer should help. And in case it doesn’t, you can visit our online field guide or download our free Audubon bird guide app to solve the mystery.
With its black face and crimson crest, beak, and body, the male Northern Cardinal, or “redbird” to many, is one of the most recognized and well-known birds in North America. Though less showy, females are also splendid, wearing soft, tawny feathers instead of the male's bright red plumage. Cardinals are often in pairs and can be seen at feeders and around mixed habitat throughout the East and parts of the Southwest.
Good bird fact: The Northern Cardinal is the most popular state bird (seven) and the mascot for a whole bunch of sports teams. However, despite what the University of Louisville might think, cardinals most definitely do not have teeth.
As with the cardinal, it’s pretty darn hard to mistake a Blue Jay for anything else. A distinctive bird that can be seen year-round in the eastern United States, the Blue Jay is of one of the most striking—and loudest—jays. At home in the forest, they also thrive in suburban habitats and are often unfairly (or, okay, fairly) regarded as feeder bullies. While easy to identify at a glance thanks to its crest and bright coloring, don’t miss the stunning pattern of black, white, and blue on the wings.
Good bird fact: The vibrant feathers of a Blue Jay are magnificent, no doubt, but even more impressive are the microscopic keratin particles throughout each feather that scatter light, producing the cooler colors seen on these and other birds.
The most widespread dove in North America, the Mourning Dove is an easily startled ground feeder that can be found pretty much anywhere with open habitat, from woodlands to cities. Note the uniform brown-gray coloring, dark spots on the wings, light-blue eye ring, and sharp, pointed tail. These doves can also easily be identified by their woeful cooing, which is often mistaken for the hoots of an owl.
Good bird fact: Here’s a new term for ya: pigeon milk. Secreted from the crops of doves and pigeons (part of their digestive system), this chunky, yellow substance is highly nutritious and fed to baby birds after being regurgitated by the parent. Yum!
Sure, you know what a crow looks like. But do you know what type of crow you’re looking at? Often found in a variety of semi-open habitat, American Crows are large, all-black birds that can easily be identified by their harsh caw! call, which knowing is key to differentiating the American Crow from the almost-identical-looking Fish Crow and Northwestern Crow. This guide will help you tell the three apart, and this one will explain the key differences between crows and Common Ravens.
Talk about a bird that’s truly everywhere. Walk outside, look around, and chances are good you’ll see a starling. An introduced species to the U.S., these birds are now omnipresent—much to the disadvantage of many other species. Often found in huge flocks in the winter and fall, this medium-size forager sports a spiky yellow bill and richly detailed black feathers that have an oily sheen to them. Their call often has a metallic or squeaky sound.
Good bird fact: The European Starling was famously introduced in 1890 by Eugene Schieffelin, who, according to legend, thought that America should have every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. So he released two waves of the birds in Central Park, and now they've taken over the entire U.S. Thanks, Eugene.
Juncos are a popular and widespread winter visitor to almost all of the United States from the boreal forests of the North and high mountains. They prefer mixed woods and coniferous habitat, but they are staples of backyards, where they bounce around under feeders foraging and eating spilled seeds. The eastern version of the junco—the dark-eyed one above—features a white belly and a slate head and back, but there are a few different subspecies of the bird that vary geographically.
Good bird fact: Dark-eyed Juncos are colloquially known as “snowbirds” due to their sudden appearance throughout much of the country when the temperature starts dropping. The term is often used for a variety of winter birds, but juncos are the true snowbirds.
A permanent resident across the northern U.S. and in parts of the Appalachian Mountains, Black-capped Chickadees are energetic little birds that prefer mixed, open woods and forest edges. Easy to identify by their white cheeks sandwiched between a black cap and chin, chickadees also live in suburban environments and are popular feeder visitors, where they can readily be identified by quick bursts of their namesake call: chick-a-dee-dee-dee.
Good bird fact: While juncos have several subspecies, there are quite a few different actual species of chickadees across the U.S., and they all look pretty similar. This guide can help you figure out which type of chickadee you’ve got in your area.
With a preference for being upside down, the nuthatch is one of the more acrobatic birds on this list, often spotted skulking along the tree limbs and down trunks throughout much of the U.S. The nuthatch’s pale belly, slate back, and black cap combined with its streamlined shape give it a look like no other backyard bird. When not visible, its nasal yank-yank call gives away its presence.
Good bird fact: Nuthatches have a penchant for caching food. In backyards, this bird conspicuously shuttles seeds from feeders and suet blocks to various hiding spots in loose tree bark for later snacking.
Where there are chickadees, nuthatches, and juncos, you’re almost guaranteed to find a titmouse, if not several. At home in the deciduous and mixed forests of the East, this gray little bird is the only one of its size with a spiky crest, setting it apart from the other birds at feeders. Note the rust-colored wash under the wings and the little bit of black above the beak. The call, a confident and clear peter-peter-peter, is unmistakable.
Good bird fact: The name titmouse has no connection to rodents; “mouse” here is derived from an old English word for a small bird. To start an argument among bird lovers, ask them, “Should the plural be titmouses or titmice?” Then sit back and enjoy the show.
If you walk outside, look around, and don’t see a starling, you’ll definitely see a House Sparrow. Also extremely common, these birds thrive in human environments, where they can be found foraging on sidewalks and fluffed up in bushes. Another introduced species, House Sparrows hang in groups and wear a hodgepodge of colors: brown backs, gray chests and caps, and a blatant black patch covering their chins and throats.
Good bird fact: House Sparrows live in organized, military-like units that are led by the male with the biggest black patch. So next time you see a group, look for the bird with the most black on its breast and you’ve likely found the leader.
Possibly the most common visitor to feeders throughout the U.S., House Finches are found in suburbs and urban areas. A small bird, males stand out thanks to a dollop of red on their faces that diminishes as it stretches down their necks and breasts. Females are all brown with light striping on their breasts. Male House Finches are easily confused with similar-looking Purple Finches, but this handy guide will keep you straight.
Good bird fact: Once only found in the American Southwest, the House Finches were introduced to the East by a New York pet-shop owners illegally selling finches. To avoid prosecution, they released their birds in 1940. By the 1990s, an eastern population had spread all the way to the bird’s original western range.
Just as comfortable clinging to feeders as it is to the purple tops of thistle plants, the goldfinch is a cheery drop of sunshine during the summer and spring months across the northern U.S., where it's a year-round resident. In winter, where it can also be found in the southern U.S., males trade their distinctive black cap and golden feathers for olive-colored plumage, matching the female. Both birds have telltale white wing bars. To attract goldfinches, hang a tube feeder filled with nyjer seeds.
Good bird fact: American Goldfinches are so closely associated with thistle that John James Audubon portrayed them on the plant in his seminal guide Birds of America. “Whenever a thistle was to be seen on either bank of the New York canal, it was ornamented with one or more Goldfinches,” he wrote of one walk along the Mohawk river.
Woodpeckers! Woodpeckers are such good birds. They’re fairly easy to find thanks to all that hammering, and they’re fun to watch. The downy is the smallest and most abundant woodpecker we have, occurring across the U.S. year-round, save for the arid Southwest. Easy to attract to your yard with a suet feeder, Downy Woodpeckers can be found in a variety of habitats, from deep woods to urban parks and backyards.
Good bird fact: How do woodpecker keep from knocking themselves out? All species have an enlarged and reinforced brain case, allowing the brain to sit higher than the impact zone, where the skull is also thicker. Thanks to this and extra muscles behind the beak, woodpeckers essentially have built-in shock absorbers.
Nope, you’re not seeing double—Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers look almost exactly alike. Adding to the frustration of many a new birder, they also share pretty much the exact same territory across the U.S. However, with a little training, the birds are easily differentiated by their body and bill size; the hairy is much bigger on both accounts, with a thicker body and heavier bill. Like the downy, it enjoys suet but visits feeders less often.
Good bird fact: Despite the name, this woodpecker has feathers, not hair. It gets its name from some long, stringy feathers in the center of its back—a feature lacking in its smaller look-alike.
“Wait, where’s the red belly?” This is the typical response most people have when they first learn the name of this medium-size woodpecker, which can be found throughout the American South, stretching up into the Mid-Atlantic states and into the Midwest. A good look will reveal the wash of color that earned the bird its name, but this species is more easily identified by its bright red cap, white-striped back, and rolling call.
Good bird fact: To reach bugs and other goodies as they peck away, woodpeckers need extra-long tongues, which wrap around the inside of their skull when retracted. The Red-bellied Woodpecker’s tongue can reach two inches past its beak.
Andrew Del-Colle is the site director and editor for Audubon.org. Thanks to his mom, he's been a birder for 20-plus years, and he tries to spread the Gospel of Birds wherever he goes. You can follow him on Twitter.