The Most Desirable Birds In North America

We have learned that there are some bird species that birders want to see more than any others. We derived our list from the authoritative checklist published by the American Birding Association. We included all rare, casual, and accidental species regularly occurring North American species that are not widespread and one species that was once dangerously close to extinction but today is surviving in captivity and struggling to become naturally re-established. We omitted most species not native to North America.

Nearly 900 readers participated. Their 10 most-wanted birds are revealed in this article. They include three owls, a handful of endangered species, a clown-faced puffin, a blue-footed seabird that is spotted rarely in the United States, and America’s one and only condor.

California Condor

California Condor

California Condors are the largest wild birds in North America. The wings are exceptionally long and broad, with long primary feathers giving a fingered look to the wingtips. In flight the body is noticeably bulky, the head appears small, and the tail is short and broad. If species were named based on their fossil histories, we’d almost certainly refer to this bird as American Condor. Its bones have turned up not only in California but also in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Oregon, and Florida and near Buffalo, New York. For tens of thousands of years, it fed on the carcasses of mammoths, American lions, and other giant mammals that are all now extinct.

As people poured into the state, they shot deer, elk, and antelope using lead ammunition and left carcasses that became food for scavenging birds. Hundreds of condors likely died from lead poisoning after consuming bullet fragments. Even more died after eating the carcasses of coyotes, cougars, and other animals that had been deliberately poisoned to prevent them from taking livestock.

In 2007, the state of California tried to help by banning the use of lead shot within the condor’s range, but researchers last year found that the ban has had no measurable effects on the Condor. Lead poisoning in condors, they concluded, is of “epidemic proportions.” The condor recovery team is considering releasing birds in Oregon but the results of a recent study may give them pause. It appears that the blubber of beached sea lions, harbor seals, and other marine mammals — potential condor food — contains high levels of PCBs and the pesticide DDE.

Description: Nine-foot wingspan. Mostly black body feathers with white wing linings. Unfeathered head is gray until age 5 or 6, when it turns pinkish orange. Nearly all condors wear numbered wing tags.

Range: Central and southern California, Grand Canyon, southern Utah, Baja California.


Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane

Whooping Cranes are very large, tall birds with long necks and long legs. The bill is stout and straight; the overall slender body widens to a plump “bustle” at the tail. In flight the wings are broad and the neck is fully extended. Although we think of Whooping Cranes today as birds of marshes, historically they were found on North American grasslands. Their breeding range extended from central Illinois and Iowa into Minnesota, North Dakota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

Prior to the 1860s, birds were reported near the western shore of Hudson Bay, on the Bear River in Idaho, and near Ocean City, New Jersey. In winter, Whoopers occupied two regions: the intermountain grasslands of central Mexico and the Gulf Coast from northeastern Mexico to Alabama. 

Scientists have known the crane’s migration route since 1954, when the Canadian breeding grounds were discovered. In the last few years, a tracking project using solar-powered GPS transmitters has revealed details about timing, stopover sites, and migratory behavior. For more than 60 years, the flock wintering at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was counted in an annual census, which, over time, showed steady growth. In 2012-13, officials estimated the Texas population at 273 cranes, but the number may have been as low as 250 or as high as 301.

Description: Five feet tall. Bright white with red crown and red and black facial skin. Black wing tips obvious in flight. Juvenile mostly reddish brown.

Range: Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta and Northwest Territories. Aransas NWR, Texas. Reintroduced flocks in Wisconsin, Florida, and Louisiana.


Elf Owl

Elf Owl

These owls are found in forests ranging from deciduous woods along streams to high-elevation fir and spruce forests at timberline. They also live in cottonwood, aspen, and mixed-conifer forests. To avoid being eaten or having their nests raided, small birds often gang up on larger birds or other predators. Elf Owls in groups of 3-6 have been known to mob Great Horned Owls, which are 35 times heavier, as well as gopher snakes and raccoon-like ringtails. American Robins, Bridled Titmice, and Black-throated Gray Warblers have been observed mobbing Elf Owls. 

The Elf Owl is easiest to find from late March through mid-July, when it is most vocal. It remains in its breeding range in the United States until early October, when it migrates to Mexico. Its migration routes are unknown, but it has been reported in spring and late summer in flocks. The species was once reliable along the lower Colorado River in southern Nevada, southeastern California, and western Arizona, but it’s rare in the region now. Recent goals have been to create no less than 1,784 acres of Elf Owl habitat and to install lots of nest boxes. In the spring of 2010 and 2011, researchers from the Great Basin Bird Observatory made detailed observations of owls and their habitats on the nearby Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge in western Arizona. The study was a critical step toward returning breeding Elf Owls to the lower Colorado River valley.

Description: Less than 6 inches long and about 1.4 ounces in weight. Yellow eyes, white eyebrows, cinnamon facial disc, white spots on wings.

Range: Lower Colorado River, from southern Nevada, eastern California, and western Arizona, east to the Rio Grande River in New Mexico; Big Bend region of Texas east to Edwards Plateau and north to the Davis Mountains; Dimmit County, Texas, south through the Rio Grande, to Nuevo León, Mexico; southern region of Baja California; and western Mexico.




Gyrfalcons are very large falcons. They have pointed wings, but they are not as pointed or as narrow as the wings of smaller falcons. The tail is relatively long. The body is thick and powerful, particularly in females, which are substantially larger than males. The name Gyrfalcon may be a hybrid of the Old High German word gir, meaning vulture, and the Latin falx, a farm tool with a curved blade, a reference to the bird’s hooked talons. The connection to old languages seems appropriate since scientists recently documented the falcon’s reliance on and continued use of old nesting sites in Greenland. Researchers visited 13 nest sites, tested the age of the droppings, and found that four sites had been in use for at least 1,000 years. The oldest nest had guano deposits dating back as much as 2,740 years. In addition, birds nesting in Norway, Canada, and Alaska form a single population, most likely involving Russian Gyrs as well. 

During breeding season, the falcons occur in alpine and arctic tundra habitats, often near rivers and coastlines, and they rely heavily on ptarmigan for food. In fact, Gyrfalcon’s breeding distribution across the Northern Hemisphere is strikingly similar to that of Rock Ptarmigan. Recent research from Canada’s Yukon Territory, however, suggests climate change may be disrupting the age-old relationship of predator and prey. The population peaks seem to be disappearing, although there is no evidence of imminent local extinctions. It was discovered that Gyrfalcons are breeding much later, may be producing fewer young, and seem to be declining in abundance.

Description: Large raptor with long tail and yellow eye ring. Plumage varies from white to gray to dark brown. Gray morph most common in southern Canada and northern United States.

Range: Breeds in arctic regions from Alaska to Greenland, Scandinavia to Sibera. Winters in Canada and the northern United States and across a wide swath of central Eurasia.


Atlantic Puffin

Atlantic Puffin

A sharply dressed black-and-white seabird with a huge, multicolored bill, the Atlantic Puffin is often called the clown of the sea. It breeds in burrows on islands in the North Atlantic, and winters at sea. In flight, puffins flap their small wings frantically to stay aloft—but underwater those wings become powerful flippers that allow the birds to catch small fish one by one until they have a beak full. A colorful, triangular bill is this bird’s most distinguishing feature. The size of the bill and the number of grooves in it increase as the bird ages, factors that puffins may use to assess potential mates. Project Puffin, a productive effort to return puffins to Eastern Egg Rock and other nesting islands off the coast of Maine began in the 1970s and ’80s. Its success has depended, in part, on “puffineers,” observers who live on the island all summer and work hard to keep Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls at bay. 

Puffins thrive in seas between 32-68° F (0-20° C). Prime fishing hours for puffins are 4-8 a.m. and 4-8 p.m., according to a study in which temperature depth recorders were affixed to birds’ legs. Little is known about puffins’ whereabouts after the breeding season, but huge flocks have been spotted southwest of Greenland and between Greenland and Iceland, suggesting they sometimes gather in great numbers. More insights into winter movements were gained recently when geolocators were retrieved from two puffins at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge. The devices showed that the birds had flown north into the gulfs of Maine and St. Lawrence, and one winter, one of the birds continued north into the Labrador Sea.

Description: Clownlike whitish face and orange, yellow, and bluish gray bill in breeding season. White belly, dark back and wings. Red-orange legs.

Range: Breeds off the coasts of Maine, eastern Canada, Green- land, Iceland, Britain, and northern Europe. Winters at sea.


Spotted Owl

Spotted Owl

In the 1990s the Spotted Owl was catapulted into the spotlight over logging debates in the Pacific Northwest. This large, brown-eyed owl lives in mature forests of the West, from the giant old growth of British Columbia and Washington, to California's oak woodlands and the steep canyons of the Southwest. At night it silently hunts small mammals such as woodrats and flying squirrels. Despite federal protection beginning in 1990, the owl is still declining in the Northwest owing to habitat loss, fragmentation, and competition with Barred Owls. Surveys suggest that more than 200 Mexican Spotted Owls live in Grand Canyon National Park. It’s the most common owl species within the park. The bird uses “narrow, steep-walled canyons where ledges and caves provide cover from high temperatures, as well as nest sites and foraging habitat,” according to avian ecologist David W. Willey and biologist R.V. Ward. 

In essence, complex, rocky terrain has been substituted for old-growth forest.” Willey and Ward conducted their surveys by imitating the owl’s calls and listening for responses — a common survey method across the range of Spotted Owl. Over the last three decades, scientists have researched Spotted Owl so intensely that today it has the distinction of being one of the most-studied owls in the world. Researchers found that Northern Spotted Owl is a true subspecies and that the California and Mexican groups, despite being geographically isolated from one another, form a second genetic subspecies. Northern Spotted Owl, the researchers concluded, split from the California and Mexican group around 115,000-125,000 years ago. The genetic study also found that California and Northern Spotted Owls hybridize in the area where the two groups meet: the Klamath ecoregion of southern Oregon and northern California.

Description: Large, dark-eyed owl. Brown, spotted on breast. Color darkest in the Northwest and palest in the Southwest.

Range: Southwestern British Columbia to central and southern California, New Mexico, Arizona, southern Utah, southwestern Colorado, western Texas, and eastern and central Mexico.


Kirtland's Warbler

Kirtland’s Warbler

A rare bird of the Michigan jack pine forests, the Kirtland's Warbler is dependent upon fire to provide the small trees and open areas that meet its rigid habitat requirements for nesting.

The warbler was named for Dr. Kirtland and he had collected the first specimen in 1841 on a ship near the Bahamas, but no one knew about it until after the bird had been named. Over the last century, ornithologists have theorized that the warbler’s migration route was a fairly narrow band between Michigan and the Bahamas, that the bird followed river valleys, and that it makes the 1,380-mile flight north with few or no stops. 

Recent research suggests that none of this is true. More than a century’s worth of sightings, the authors say, show that after warblers cross the ocean from the Bahamas, they fan out. The most common stopover habitat is a shrub/scrub mix — similar to optimal breeding habitat.  What’s more, like every other warbler you’ve ever watched, Kirtland’s Warbler does indeed stop to feed on insects during its migration. The authors also note that the core breeding area in Michigan is “almost due magnetic north of the center of the species’ wintering grounds in the Bahamas. This may explain why the warbler chooses to nest in a fairly narrow region and not in the much wider band of jack pine across the continent.

 Description:Blue-gray above and yellow below. Streaked sides, broken white eye ring. Female paler with spots on breast. Pumps tail constantly.

Range: Breeds in the northern portion of lower Michigan, the state’s upper peninsula, central Wisconsin, and eastern Ontario. Winters on Eleuthera and other islands in the Bahamas.


Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl 

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

The Northern Pygmy-Owl may be tiny, but it’s a ferocious hunter with a taste for songbirds. These owls are mostly dark brown and white, with long tails, smoothly rounded heads, and piercing yellow eyes. They hunt during the day by sitting quietly and surprising their prey. As a defensive measure, songbirds often gather to mob sitting owls until they fly away. Mobbing songbirds can help you find these unobtrusive owls, as can listening for their call, a high-pitched series of toots. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl feeds mainly on grasshoppers and also eats scorpions, cicadas, reptiles, and birds. A study conducted on the King Ranch in Texas recorded the owl preying on Northern Cardinal, Blue Grosbeak, Eastern Meadowlark, and other songbirds. The owl uses a perch-and-pounce hunting method, and it raids nest cavities of Golden-fronted Woodpecker and other birds. 

In recent decades, the subspecies known as Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl declined substantially in Arizona and was listed as Endangered between 1997 and 2006. Environmentalists filed suit calling for it to be listed again. Unfortunately, populations across the border in Sonora, Mexico, dropped 36 percent from 2000 to 2009, according to a report by University of Montana biologist Aaron Flesch. Unless Sonora’s numbers rebound, he writes, it’s unlikely that owls will be translocated from Sonora to Arizona to help the species recover in the state. Another challenge: In the time when the species was listed but before critical-habitat protections took effect under the Endangered Species Act, many landowners near Tucson developed their land, making it much less suitable for owls. Today the big bird-friendly ranches of South Texas are the best places to find Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in the United States. Since floods along the Rio Grande in July 2010, the species has been absent from its traditional haunts near the Mexico border, including Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.

Description: About the size of a bluebird. Gray-brown above, streaked reddish brown below. Yellow eyes, long reddish tail.

Range: South Texas (Kingsville), southern Arizona, Mexico to Argentina.


Green Jay

Green Jay

The Central American and South American populations of the Green Jay are separated by 1,500 km (900 mi). The two different groups differ in color, calls, and habitat use, and may be different species. The South American Green Jays are larger and have a crest in front of their eyes. Green Jay is one of many bird species that use tools. In 1981, University of Missouri biologist Douglas Gayou watched an adult jay insert a twig beneath a piece of bark to extract and eat insects. Green Jay also has an unusual family system, Gayou found. After fledging, young birds remain with their parents for a year. While the parents raise a new set of offspring, the year-old birds defend the territory but don’t feed the young chicks. Several weeks after the new young fledge, the adult male drives away the year-old jays, and the process starts again. 

Species that have developed cooperative breeding include Florida Scrub-Jay, Brown Jay, Mexican Jay, and so-called Inca Jay, the South American subspecies of Green Jay. It is distinct from the northern bird not just in breeding strategies and range but also in plumage, habitat, and vocalizations. Green Jay’s range expansion in Texas during the last 40 years is, in a word, stunning. A century ago, the species was restricted to the Rio Grande Valley. In the 1970s and ’80s, the northern edge of the range was near Kingsville, southwest of Corpus Christi. Since then, it has spread north and east, and today, it occurs near San Antonio — 225 miles north of the Rio Grande.

Description: Blue crown, black throat and breast, blue and black face, emerald back, yellow-green belly, yellow outer tail feathers.

Range: South Texas, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. Inca Jay subspecies from Venezuela to Bolivia treated as a separate species by several authors.


Blue-Footed Booby

Blue-Footed Booby

Despite its sizeable breeding population in the Gulf of California, Blue-footed Booby rarely strays north of the U.S.-Mexico border. The most likely spot to see it in the U.S. is southern California’s Salton Sea, but there are no guarantees. Pelagic birding tours off the southern California coast spot Blue-footeds occasionally, and vagrants have been seen in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. Since 1994, boobies and other native birds that breed on islands in the Gulf of California have benefitted from a rat-eradication project. 

The bird’s namesake feet are the reason for its popularity — with birders and with other boobies. Males and females choose their mates based on how bright their feet are. And for good reason: Carotenoids consumed while eating determine the shade of blue, so the feet are a good indicator of the bird’s overall health. In a 21-year study in Mexico, scientists found that a Blue-footed’s best breeding years are between the ages of 6 and 12. As they age, boobies are less likely to pair up because their feet become duller. 

If you visit the Galapagos, you can’t miss Blue-footed Booby, but in the last decade, anecdotal evidence suggests numbers have declined. The Galapagos Conservation Trust launched a systematic study in 2011. Early results show the species has suffered a 50-percent drop since the 1960s. What’s more, recent breeding success appears to be low, likely due to a shortage of prey in the ocean. “The adults seem to have enough food to live,” says lead researcher Dave Anderson, “but not enough to raise their offspring.”

Description: Large seabird with long bill and tail, streaked head, white breast, dark back, and blue feet.

Range: Pacific coast from Mexico to central Peru, especially the Gulf of California, Galapagos Islands, Honduras, and Panama. In Mexico, common in the Gulf of California and on the coast from San Blas south to Oaxaca.



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