Living in California and heard some birds but are not sure which ones they were?
California is known for its wildlife, and according to the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC), there are over 680 species of birds there. Plenty of those have beautiful songs.
Examples of California songbirds include the black phoebe, western bluebird, American robin, house finch, cliff swallow, and many others.
Some of these birds, like the black phoebe and western bluebird, can be seen year-round in the state, while others, like the cliff swallow, will only spend summers there.
Here are their photos, songs, and some fun facts.
Table of Contents
Songbirds Of California
1. Black Phoebe
- Scientific name: Sayornis nigricans
Black phoebes are small flycatchers with predominantly black plumage and white parts on the bellies and undertail coverts. They can weigh as little as half an ounce and have a wingspan of just 10.5 inches.
You will recognize them by their characteristic “tail-wagging” motion where they lower the tails and fan out the tails’ feathers. Both sexes look similar.
Males have a repeated “tee-hee, tee ho” song they use to defend territories and attract mates. During different activities like flying, searching for food, and dealing with potential predators, they emit short, sharp “tsip” calls.
Black phoebes are permanent residents in the western parts of California, near the Pacific, around riparian areas, suburbs, and parks, often near water.
These tiny dark-colored birds are carnivores that mostly feed on insects, but might occasionally catch fish. They will use mud to build their cup-shaped nests, placing them often against walls, overhangs, and bridges.
2. Cliff Swallow
- Scientific name: Petrochelidon pyrrhonota
Cliff swallows are gregarious songbirds with broad pointed wings, small heads, and squared tails. They have dark brown upperparts, maroon-colored throats, white foreheads, and streaked backs.
Cliff swallows are found throughout California, except in high mountains and the dry southeastern deserts. Look for them during summer around steep banks, cliffs, bridges, and buildings near the waterways of the state.
In central California, the period for egg laying typically spans from late April to the end of May. Moving south to southern California, nesting can commence as early as late March, while in the far northeastern part of the state, it may extend to as late as June.
Occasionally, cliff swallows may lay eggs in other swallows’ nests for them to raise their chicks. Their eggs are whitish with brownish speckles.
Listen for the song of cliff swallows, a 6-second-long series of guttural grating sounds and squeaks. They also have several calls, including the alarm call, begging, recognition, and squeak call; the most common one is a soft “chur“.
They are very social birds that can form large groups and create colonies ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand nests. These birds are also common in the Northeast and mainly consume flies, bees, moths, butterflies, grasshoppers, etc.
3. Tree Swallow
- Scientific name: Tachycineta bicolor
Tree swallows are beautiful songbirds that are summer residents in central and northern California. They arrive to breed in the state as early as February, but mostly from mid-March to early April.
In the winter, the situation changes, and tree swallows become common in southern California, around areas like the Salton Sea and the Colorado River. They prefer to fly during the day and roost in large flocks at night.
Look for these small migratory songbirds in wet habitats like flooded meadows, marshes, lakeshores, streams, and open areas near woods. They are cavity nesters that might even use man-made nest boxes.
Tree swallows’ song is a cheerful series of liquid twitters that consist of three parts: the chirp, the whine, and the gurgle. They also have several calls: the chatter, short high-pitched submission call, ticking (or rasping) aggression call, the alarm call, and others.
You will also notice long, pointed wings and short, squared, or slightly notched tails. These birds have almost metallic greenish-blue backs and heads, together with white throats, breasts, and bellies.
4. Pygmy Nuthatch
- Scientific name: Sitta pygmaea
Pygmy nuthatches are the smallest nuthatches in the world. These tiny songbirds are around 4 inches long and weigh only 0.35 ounces on average.
They are scattered across the Western USA, usually around forests. In California, pygmy nuthatches are common in coastal and mountainous coniferous forests, rarely seen in lower areas.
They will climb up and down these trees, feeding on insects and seeds. Identify them by their dark grayish-brown caps, blue-gray upperparts, and whitish underparts.
Pygmy nuthatches have a song that is a continuous repetition of their “piping” call, which can last for more than 2 minutes. Like in other nuthatch species, there is no clear distinction between their songs and calls. They also have various calls, such as shrill, staccato piping resembling Morse code or a rubber ducky being squeezed, as well as titters and high-pitched trills.
Pygmy nuthatch song
They are gregarious birds that can be seen in large noisy flocks high in the crowns of trees, often together with other songbirds. Pygmy nuthatches roost communally, occasionally with over 100 birds huddled in a single tree cavity.
Read More: More examples of blue-colored birds
5. Red-breasted Nuthatch
- Scientific name: Sitta canadensis
Red-breasted nuthatches are small Californian songbirds with blue-gray backs, pale orange undersides, and black and white striped faces. They also have straight gray beaks, long toes and claws, white supercilium (eyebrow), and black crowns on their heads.
The song of red-breasted nuthatches consists of a slowly repeated series of clear and rising notes that sound like “een-een-een“. These very small songbirds can be also recognized by their high-pitched, nasal, and weak “yank-yank” call.
Red-breasted nuthatches can be mainly seen in coniferous woods where they mainly feed on insects and seeds. If no food is available, these permanent residents of California might migrate south to lower elevations.
6. Western Bluebird
- Scientific name: Sialia mexicana
Western bluebirds are small North American thrushes that usually perch upright. Look for birds that have deep blue-colored wings, orange breasts and sides, gray bellies, and thin straight bills.
In Southern California, you will find them during winter, usually from October to February. Some populations might even stay there year-round. Most populations in Northern California can be commonly seen there throughout the year.
Western bluebirds are common visitors to oak woodlands, mountain conifers, valley farms, and orchards. Some places with them include the Briones regional park, Lafayette Reservoir, Lake Lagunitas, and Las Trampas Regional Wilderness Park.
When it comes to sound identification, male western bluebirds will often make loud calls that sound like “cheer,” “chur–chur,” and “chup,” to keep competitors away and to find females in the condensed forest.
Pay close attention to birds that drop suddenly to the ground after insects. They are omnivores but will also feed on berries.
Western bluebirds mate for life. However, one 2003 study discovered that around 45% of western bluebird females had some chicks in the nest that are not sired by their social mates.
7. Western Tanager
- Scientific name: Piranga ludoviciana
Western tanagers are medium-sized songbirds that have pale, stout pointed beaks, yellow underparts, and light wing bars.
Similar to other songbirds, males are more colorful than females. They are hard to mistake for other birds as they have red heads, yellow bodies, black wings and tails, and yellow shoulder bars. Females have yellow heads, olive backs, and dark wings and tails.
Western tanagers get their orange-red head colors from a rare pigment called rhodoxanthin they most likely obtain from eating insects.
Western tanagers are summer residents of Northern California, commonly found around woodlands. If you live in southern California, you might be able to spot them during their spring and fall migrations; there might also be some smaller population breeding in those parts.
Male western tanagers produce a brief, raspy song lasting approximately 2.5 seconds. The song consists of a series of short, burry up-and-down phrases, often described as if the bird is rapidly asking and answering a set of questions. While the song may remind you of the American Robin’s, it is generally shorter and has a hoarser or raspier tone.
Western tanagers’ most frequent call is a short, chuckling or rattling sound consisting of 2-3 notes. This call bears resemblance to the call of a summer tanager.
Attract western tanagers to your backyard by placing dried fruit, freshly cut oranges, and other fresh fruit at your bird feeder.
8. Lazuli Bunting
- Scientific name: Passerina amoena
Lazuli buntings are stunning blue and orange North American songbirds that were named after the lapis lazuli gemstone. To honor their beauty and incredible colors, early naturalists named them “Passerina amoena” which means “beautiful sparrow.”
Males are similar to closely related indigo buntings and have bright blue heads and backs, rusty orange breasts, and white bellies. Females are mostly brown with grayish upperparts.
Lazuli buntings are regular summer visitors in California, typically seen there from April until September. However, you won’t find them in higher mountain regions or the southern deserts.
They prefer to breed in open chaparral areas and brushy undergrowth within open wooded habitats, particularly in valley foothill riparian zones. You can also spot them in thickets of willows, tangled vines, and areas with tall forbs.
Young males will arrive at their breeding grounds without a song – not much after that, they will use parts of songs of other males and rearrange syllables to create their own.
Adult lazuli buntings sing a complex mix of jumbling and squeaky notes, repeating them 2-5 times for about 3 seconds. They add variety by changing the note order. They sing more during territorial disputes and when the female starts incubating.
Source: NPS & MSU Acoustic Atlas/Jennifer Jerrett, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Their most common call is a sharp, metallic “pik” sound from both males and females. These bright blue, pumpkin orange and white buntings are omnivores that forage on the ground and feed on insects and seeds.
9. California Thrasher
- Scientific name: Toxostoma redivivum
These large and long-tailed songbirds are easy to recognize by their long and decurved beaks, cocked tails, and gray-brown plumage. California thrashers also have grayish supercilium over their dark eyes that resemble eyebrows.
They are commonly found year-round in the foothills and lowlands of cismontane California. They prefer moderate to dense chaparral habitats and occasionally inhabit extensive thickets in young or open valley foothill riparian areas.
Their range stretches from the Mexican border northwards to Shasta, Trinity, and southern Humboldt counties, extending into the Shasta Valley of Siskiyou County. Along the coastal fog belt north of San Francisco, they are only found in drier sites. The breeding season in the state lasts from early December to early August, peaking from mid-April to mid-June.
Males sing a delightful series of phrases, each repeated twice, consisting of 2–3 sweet-sounding syllables. They are known for their ability to imitate other bird species; females will sometimes join them. Both sexes produce various calls, including a low chup, rising “churreep“, and harsher “chak” sounds.
You will often find them foraging on the ground, digging and sweeping through leaves with their bills. During spring, California thrashers feed on insects and other small invertebrates; they might also eat some small fruits throughout the rest of the year.
10. Spotted Towhee
- Scientific name: Pipilo maculatus
These large, striking, and long-tailed sparrows can be recognized by their black hoods, black backs, and black wings that are speckled with white spots, white bellies and tail tips, and rufous flanks. Females are similar to males but are dark brown and gray instead of black.
Spotted towhees are common year-round residents throughout California, except at high elevations in the Sierra Nevada and lowlands of southern deserts. They breed in the state from late April to late August, with their peak activity occurring in May and June.
They can be found in various habitats, including chaparral, shrubs, riparian areas, hardwood and hardwood-conifer stands, and lower-elevation conifer habitats.
Spotted towhees have a fairly simple song. It lasts for about 1.5 seconds and begins with a few short introductory notes followed by a fast trill that resembles the plucking of a taut rubber band or the sound of paper being caught in a fan. When it comes to their calls, they will also emit a mewing call reminiscent of a cat’s sound, lasting a little over half a second.
Look for them nesting on the ground or low in bushes. They are also common around bird feeders so you might be lucky to find a spotted towhee around your backyard.
11. Tricolored Blackbird
- Scientific name: Agelaius tricolor
These small black birds with red and white shoulder patches are common on the Pacific coast of North America.
Tricolored blackbirds are permanent residents of California, with more than 95% of the world population breeding in the state. The largest breeding colonies of these songbirds can be found in Central Valley, around marshes and fields.
Males are easy to spot by their entirely black plumage with bright red shoulders and white-colored patches. Females are dark gray-brown and have streaked bellies and backs along with cream-colored eyebrows.
Listen for their nasal “kip” and a sharp “check” call and the males’ garbled “on-ke-kaaangh” song.
Tricolored blackbird song
Tricolored blackbirds form one of the largest colonies of any North American land bird, often including tens of thousands of individuals. They are listed as threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act and as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
12. Red-winged Blackbird
- Scientific name: Agelaius phoeniceus
Red-winged blackbirds are year-round residents commonly found in wetland habitats all across California. They prefer to nest and roost in fresh and saline emergent wetlands, particularly in areas with cattails and tules.
Their scientific name “agelaios” means “gregarious,” while the “phoeniceus” means “crimson” or “red,” which perfectly describes these birds.
Males can be identified by their black plumage with red epaulets that are edged in yellow. They often perch on fences, wires, and the tops of shrubs and sing their raucous “conk-a-ree-onk”.
Source: G. McGrane, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The singing is frequently accompanied by the flashing of their brilliant epaulets.
Red-winged blackbirds are also gregarious, very territorial, and polygynous birds, where one male can have up to 10 different females making nests in his territory. Females, on the other hand, will frequently mate with other males, and often lay clutches of mixed paternity.
13. American Robin
- Scientific name: Turdus migratorius
American robins are a common sight in California during the summer, inhabiting a significant portion of the state, except for the southern deserts.
During the winter, they become even more widespread, although they tend to move below the snowline in mountainous regions. These birds prefer open, wooded areas with moist, herbaceous understories for their habitat.
Males are easy to identify by their black heads, yellow beaks with gray tips, and brick-red breasts. Females are slightly duller and have brown heads. Look for large flocks of birds, sometimes up to 10,000 individuals.
Their song is described as a “cheery” carol consisting of a string of 10 or so clear whistles; American robins also have a sharp “yeep” alarm call or a mumbled “tuk” when communicating with one another.
Source: G. McGrane, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Using mud, twigs, and plants, they place their nests on horizontal branches or in the crotch of a variety of trees, some 3-25 feet above the ground. These monogamous birds breed from early April to late August in the state, laying around 4 eggs, up to twice per year.
American robins are the state birds of Connecticut, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Read More: Examples of California’s nocturnal birds
14. Steller’s Jay
- Scientific name: Cyanocitta stelleri
Steller’s jays are one of the larger jay species that are native to western North America and the mountains of Central America.
In California, they are common, yearlong residents of forests in mountains and foothills in northern parts of the state. They are most common in conifer and hardwood forest habitats.
Steller’s jays have charcoal black heads and dark blue rest of the body (the brightest blue colors are on the wings); there are also lighter streaks on their foreheads.
These black and blue birds are conspicuous and have very harsh “shack-sheck-sheck” calls.
Source: National Park Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
During courtship, male birds, and sometimes females, produce a soft and melodic medley of whistled, gurgled, and popping sounds, which they string together. This charming song is commonly heard during their courtship rituals.
Similar to other jays, Steller’s jays are great at mimicking other birds including raptors like osprey, red-shouldered hawks, red-tailed hawks, etc.
They are also common around bird feeders, campgrounds, and picnic areas, looking for sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and their favorite, raw peanuts. These monogamous birds were named after the German naturalist who first recorded them, Georg Wilhelm Steller.
15. Golden-crowned Kinglet
- Scientific name: Regulus satrapa
Golden-crowned kinglets are tiny songbirds, one of the smallest in the United States. They are greenish-gray above and grayish below; males have black eyelines, white eyebrows, and fiery orange crowns while females have yellow crowns.
Golden-crowned kinglets are common and plentiful residents of northern California, where they breed in high-elevation conifers. They can be found along the coastal ranges from the Oregon border to Santa Cruz County and throughout the Cascade Range and Sierra Nevada in suitable areas.
During winter, some kinglets stay at high elevations, while many others move to lower elevations like valley foothill hardwood and riparian habitats. However, the wintering populations in the southern half of the state are not as abundant.
Listen for their song consisting of a series of very high-pitched “tsee” notes.
Source: G. McGrane, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
These tiny birds are active foragers in trees and shrubs; their diet consists of insects, insect eggs, and spiders. Golden-crowned kinglets are also noted for their remarkable ability to survive cold weather and temperatures as low as -40°F.
16. American Goldfinch
- Scientific name: Spinus tristis
American goldfinches are one of the tiniest finches found in California. These songbirds with small heads, long wings, and short, notched tails, can be seen during winter in most parts of the state.
Common around valley foothill riparian habitats, when the winter comes, males replace their stunning bumblebee patterns with an olive color while the females become dull yellow-brown.
American goldfinches can be also identified by their winter calls that sound like “per-chi-cor-ree.”
Source: G McGrane, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
These cute songbirds also love to visit bird feeders in cold weather, so make sure to sunflower seeds and nyjer seeds to attract them.
17. House Finch
- Scientific name: Haemorhous mexicanus
House finches are widespread small songbirds that have conical bills, short wings, and shallowly notched tails. Males can be identified by their streaky pink-red breasts, eyebrows, foreheads, and rumps, while females are brown above and streaked below; they have no red color.
House Finches are year-round residents widely distributed across much of California, although you won’t find them in montane habitats and arid regions without water. Common around woodlands and towns, they begin nesting in the state around March and April.
The song of house finch males is a long, jumbled warbling that consists of short notes. Their call is a sharp “cheep.”
Depending on the location, house finches have different “accents” while singing. Californian house finches have two-second songs with 4-26 syllables; the songs of the ones from Wisconsin, Colorado, and Michigan can last longer and contain more syllables.
They are gregarious and loud birds; if you want to attract house finches to your backyard, make sure to add black oil sunflower seeds, millet, and milo.
The pink-red color of the males comes from the berries and fruits in their diet – females prefer to mate with males that have the brightest faces.
18. Purple Finch
- Scientific name: Haemorhous purpureus
Despite the name, purple finches aren’t purple. Males have pink-reddish heads, breasts, backs, rumps, and streaked backs. Females are light brown above and white below and have a white line on the face above the eye.
Purple finches are common year-round residents in northern California and fairly common in the south. They can be seen in coastal foothills and lowlands and breed at middle elevations in most mountain ranges. Look for them around forests, gardens, and woodlands.
Their nesting season in California can start as early as mid-April but usually happens in May. Male purple finches have three types of songs, all featuring a rich, slurred warbling sound, typical of finches.
The “warbling song” is a fast and melodic string of 6-23 notes, often sung while they’re in a flock. The “territory song” is usually sung alone, starting with a few notes on the same pitch and then transitioning into warbling, ending with a high, emphatic note. The third song is an up-and-down cadence of 2-5 notes, sounding similar to a red-eyed vireo’s whistled “hear-me?-see-me?-here-i-am.”
Purple Finch Song | Source: G. McGrane, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Females also have their own songs, a long 1-2 minute warbling from their nests. When it comes to their calls, it’s a short and low “tek” sound.
They are omnivores that feed on seeds, berries, and insects. You will often find them around bird feeders. If you want to attract purple finches to your backyard, make sure to add sunflower seeds, millet, and thistle to your feeder.
19. Great-tailed Grackle
- Scientific name: Quiscalus mexicanus
Also known as Mexican grackles, great-tailed grackles are medium-sized songbirds native to North and South America. They were first recorded in California in 1964, and their first nesting record dates back to 1969.
In the state, they are permanent residents of the southernmost parts, found in the Colorado River Valley, at Salton Sea, Furnace Creek Ranch, and Diaz Lake. They can be seen in desert riparian, cropland, urban, and emergent wetland habitats.
Male great-tailed grackles are iridescent black and have a blue sheen on their heads and upperparts; females are brown. Males can be also recognized by their large keel-shaped tails; female tails are not keeled and are smaller.
One 2010 study discovered that males are a lot glossier than females and that such glossiness correlated positively with tail length.
Great-tailed grackles sing multiple songs, ranging from sounding very sweet to sounding like a rusty gate hinge. Both sexes will also make low-pitched “chut” alarm calls.
These highly intelligent and very social birds roost communally in groups ranging from several thousand to up to 500,000 birds!
Great-tailed grackles will nest in territories using 3 different strategies: they defend their territory with several females, they live in a colony but do not defend their territory or have mates, and they move from one colony to another after a few days. Those males that form a territory are heavier and have longer tails than non-territorial males.
20. Yellow Warbler
- Scientific name: Setophaga petechia
Yellow warblers are one of the most widely distributed birds across North America. They are small songbirds with medium-long bright yellow tails and rounded heads.
Their bright and sweet song can be often heard near streamside willows and woodland edges of California from spring to fall. These songbirds are fairly common throughout the state, except for most of the Mojave Desert and parts of the Central Valley.
Male yellow warblers will produce over 3,000 whistling songs to attract females daily. Look for them sitting perched near the tops of bushes or trees singing “sweet-sweet-I’m-so-sweet”.
On the other hand, when defending their territories, males will make loud “hissing” calls.
They are susceptible to brood parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds – these small black birds lay their eggs in the warblers’ nests. If warblers discover cowbirds’ trick, they will simply build a new nest on top of the old one, since they are too small to get the cowbird eggs out.
This concludes our list of songbirds of California. There are plenty of these in the state, from yellow warblers, American robins, and western tanagers to American goldfinches and tree swallows.
Next time you see or hear any of these birds in person, you should be able to recognize them with ease!
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