Virginia is home to a diverse array of bird life with many of these species living throughout the state, particularly in its wooded and wetland areas. Out of the 487 bird species found there, several reach impressive sizes.
The largest bird in Virginia is the mute swan which measures up to 5 ft 7 in long, spans up to 7 ft 10 in across the wings, and weighs up to 32 pounds.
Here’s what each of them looks like.
Large Birds In Virginia
Great Horned Owl
- Scientific Name: Bubo virginianus
- Length: 17-25 in
- Wingspan: 35.8-60.2 in
- Weight: 2.7-3.5 lb
Also known as tiger owls, great horned owls are the largest and one of the most common owl species found in Virginia. They are widespread around the state’s forests, farmlands, and suburban areas, throughout the year.
These massive raptors measure between 17 and 25 inches in length and have a wingspan of approximately 3 to 5 feet. They can weigh between 2.5 and 5 pounds which also makes them one of the biggest owls in North America.
In case you see great horned owls in person, you will notice brownish plumage with a mottled pattern, yellow throats, intimidating yellow eyes, and deep hooting calls. They were named “horned” for the tufts of feathers on their heads that resemble horns.
Great horned owls are powerful hunters that can take down prey as large as skunks and rabbits. They hunt using their acute hearing and excellent eyesight and can fly in near silence to catch their prey by surprise. They are also one of the few species of owl that will attack and kill other birds of prey, such as hawks and eagles.
- Scientific Name: Pandion haliaetus
- Length: 19.7-26 in
- Wingspan: 50–71 in
- Weight: 2-4.6 lb
Ospreys are longer, heavier, and with a bigger wingspan than great horned owls.
On average, these large diurnal birds of prey measure between 20 and 26 inches in length and have a wingspan of approximately 5 to 6 feet. They can weigh between 2 and 6 pounds – females are about 20% heavier and about 10% longer than males.
Found on every continent except Antarctica, ospreys are summer residents in eastern parts of Virginia. They inhabit coastlines, bays, and rivers, most commonly seen there from spring to fall. Chesapeake Bay is home to the largest breeding population of osprey in the world with over 10,000 breeding pairs found throughout the bay region.
Ospreys were seriously declining around the USA around the 1950s because of the use of pesticides like DDT that caused their thin-shelled eggs to break during incubation. In 1972, these pesticides were banned which helped slowly increase osprey populations.
They are known for their ability to dive into the water to catch fish, which make up the majority of their diet which resulted in their nickname “fish hawks”. Like other raptors, ospreys have keen eyesight and sharp talons, which they use to catch and kill their prey.
Osprey diving to catch fish
Because of their small white heads, wide wingspans, and sharp beaks and talons, people sometimes mistake them for bald eagles. Ospreys are white below, brown above, and overall whiter than most raptors. You will easily identify them in nature by their M-shaped wings when soaring and white heads with a broad brown stripe through the eyes.
- Scientific Name: Phalacrocorax carbo
- Length: 27.5-40 in
- Wingspan: 47.5-63 in
- Weight: 3.3-11.7 lb
Great cormorants are large black birds that can weigh over 11 pounds and have a wingspan of over 5 feet. They are the largest cormorant species in Virginia seen there during their non-breeding season, from late fall to early spring.
Males are usually bigger than females and have long thick necks, blocky heads, and hooked beaks. Great cormorants also have short legs, fairly long tails, and broad wings – look for birds with black plumage, white throats, and yellowish skin around their beaks.
Great cormorants are also known as great black cormorants and are excellent swimmers. They will dive underwater and pursue their prey using their feet instead of wings. Despite being excellent divers, great cormorants do not have waterproof feathers which is why they can be often seen standing on rocky shores drying their feathers in the sun.
These largest North American cormorants are carnivores and primarily feed on fish, and some crustaceans, amphibians, and insects. They have a long life and can even reach 22 years of age.
- Scientific Name: Meleagris gallopavo
- Length: 30-49 in
- Wingspan: 49.2-56.7 in
- Weight: 5.5-24 lb
Wild turkeys have made one of the greatest wildlife comebacks you will ever see. They were thriving in North America before European colonists came and reduced their population to almost zero. By the 1930s, there were just a few hundred wild turkeys in Virginia. Thanks to strong conservation efforts, they managed to recover, and now over 180,000 wild turkeys call Virginia their home.
Wild turkeys are native to North America and are considered to be ancestors of domestic turkeys. They are the main course on Thanksgiving and Benjamin Franklin called them “a true original native of America.” Wild turkeys are permanent residents of Virginia, found in open woodlands, forest edges, and fields.
They are among the largest in North America and can be identified by their large bodies, long legs, and small heads. They are mostly brown and males have red wattles on their throats and necks.
They have slightly shorter wingspans compared to great cormorants, but wild turkeys’ longer and much heavier bodies place them ahead of these birds.
Adult males called toms usually weigh from 11 to 24 pounds; females (hens) are smaller and weigh 5.5–11.9 pounds. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, the heaviest wild turkey ever recorded weighed amazing 37.1 pounds!
Despite their somewhat stocky build, wild turkeys are strong runners that use their powerful legs and long wings to reach 25 mph on foot and up to 50 mph in flight.
These enormous birds have good eyesight and hearing and prefer to stay hidden. Wild turkeys are most known for the gobble call (ll-obble-obble-obble) males use to attract females.
Wild Turkey Call | Source: bod, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Great Black-backed Gull
- Scientific Name: Larus marinus
- Length: 25–31 in
- Wingspan: 59-66.9 in
- Weight: 1.65-5 lb
Often described as “kings of the Atlantic waterfront”, great black-backed gulls are the largest gull species found in Virginia. These highly aggressive hunters, pirates, and scavengers can be seen year-round in coastal areas, bays, and lakes of the state.
You will recognize these enormous gulls by their white heads, necks and underparts, dark gray wings and backs, pink legs, and yellow beaks. Because of their size and omnivorous feeding habits, these gulls will prey on other birds during the nesting season.
Great black-backed gulls are predators and also feed on carrion, fish, mollusks, crustaceans, marine worms, insects, rodents, and berries.
Great black-backed gulls were hunted for their feathers that were used to make hats in the past. As a result, this species got eradicated from large parts of its range. They managed to recover since but they have declined globally since 1985 by 43%–48%, going from an estimated 291,000 breeding pairs to 152,000–165,000 pairs.
According to a 2022 Cambridge study, the great black-backed gull population in Virginia increased from around 400 breeding pairs in 1985 to 1234 pairs in 2021.
- Scientific Name: Morus bassanus
- Length: 34.2-39.3 in
- Wingspan: 67-71 in
- Weight: 5-8 lb
Northern gannets are the largest species of the gannet family found in Virginia. Adults measure from 34 to 39 inches long and have massive wingspans of up to 71 inches.
These huge birds are mostly white with dark wingtips and cream-colored heads and necks – that color becomes more prominent during the breeding season. Identify them also by their long pointed beaks, wings, and tails.
They spend most of their life at sea, but close to the land which means you will be able to spot them from the shore. Look for northern gannets in the state from fall to spring.
They have an interesting way of hunting where they dive like a torpedo into the water to grab fish. Thanks to their sharp vision, northern gannets can detect prey underwater, and due to their eye adaptations, they can see well immediately after going underwater. They are mostly found in large feeding groups and have a harsh “arrah-arrah” call.
- Scientific Name: Cathartes aura
- Length: 24-32 in
- Wingspan: 63-72 in
- Weight: 1.8-5.3 lb
There are two vulture species in the state: turkey and black vultures. Turkey vultures are the largest vulture species found in Virginia.
On average, they measure between 24 and 32 inches in length and have a wingspan of approximately 5 to 6 feet. They are heavier than raptors like osprey and can weigh between 2 and 5 pounds.
Turkey vultures are a common sight throughout the state of Virginia, year-round. Look for them around woodland edges and fields.
They are also known as turkey buzzards, or just buzzards, and got named for their resemblance to turkeys, but they are not closely related.
With their habit of soaring on thermal updrafts, dark plumage, bare red heads, and white legs, turkey vultures are hard to miss in the sky. Look for their silvery flight feathers that are contrasted with dark wing linings while they fly.
Using their keen vision and sharp sense of smell, turkey vultures can locate carrion easily. They are scavengers, and they feed primarily on the carcasses of dead animals. You will often spot them sitting in trees on the sides of roads waiting for their next meal.
Because of their extremely strong stomach acids, turkey vultures can eat and digest carcasses tainted with anthrax, tuberculosis, and rabies, without getting sick. They lack a syrinx (the vocal organ) which makes them voiceless; all turkey vultures can do is hiss, whine, and grunt.
Turkey Vulture Vocalization | Source: G. McGrane, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
They are one of the largest raptors in the USA, just after the eagles and condors. According to some estimates, Virginia has the second-largest vulture population east of the Mississippi, after Florida.
Great Blue Heron
- Scientific Name: Ardea herodias
- Length: 36–54 in
- Wingspan: 66–79 in
- Weight: 4-7.9 lb
Great blue herons are one of the biggest blue birds in the world. They are also the largest herons native to Virginia and can be seen year-round stalking fish with their scissors-like beaks in marshes, bays, ponds, and rivers.
They are another example of a successful comeback story in Virginia – great blue herons managed to recover from 5 pairs breeding in the state’s coastal plain in the 1960s to 7,800 pairs in 2013.
With a wingspan of up to 6.6 ft, these massive birds are hard to miss. Great blue herons are blue-gray and have large yellow-orange beaks, short black plumes on their heads, and black and chestnut patterns on the shoulders. During the flight, they will hold their neck in an S-shape with legs trailing behind.
Great blue herons are monogamous only for a single season and will go through some interesting courtship rituals, locking and rubbing their bills on the feathers of the other bird before mating. Both parents will take turns in incubating the eggs.
They nest in colonies called heronries that can occasionally have more than 500 nests! Great blue herons are carnivores that feed on fish, amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, small mammals, and even other birds. These wading birds can be seen motionless in shallow waters, waiting to strike at passing prey.
- Scientific Name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus
- Length: 28-40 in
- Wingspan: 70.8-90.5 in
- Weight: 6.6-13.9 lb
Bald eagles are the largest eagle species in Virginia. They range from 28 to 40 inches long and have a wingspan of up to 7 feet 7 inches.
These large raptors were selected in 1782 as the national symbol of the United States and can be identified by their brown bodies, white heads and tails, and yellow legs and beaks. Before attaining these characteristics around the age of five, bald eagles are mostly dark brown with varying amounts of white mottling.
The bald eagle population in Virginia went from less than 30 birds in the late 1970s to an estimated 1,500-2,000 in recent years. For example, the James River had no bald eagles around 1977; in 2021, there were around 340 pairs.
These enormous birds are common in bays, lakes, rivers, and fields of the state. When the winter comes, migrating bald eagles from the Northeast and Southeast will mix with the local eagle population around the Chesapeake Bay.
Bald eagles build one of the largest nests of any North American bird – the largest recorded one was in Florida and measured 10 feet wide and 20 feet deep. These magnificent raptors are hard to miss as they soar through the air with their 7.7-foot-wide wingspan.
Bald eagles are carnivores and opportunistic feeders that primarily consume fish they snatch from the water with their sharp talons.
- Scientific Name: Cygnus columbianus
- Length: 45–59 in
- Wingspan: 66-83 in
- Weight: 7.5-21.2 lb
Tundra swans are among the biggest birds in Virginia. They are the most common swans native to the state with experts counting 7,000 to 10,000 of these birds during the Mid-Winter Waterfowl Survey.
The best places for birdwatchers to spot them in the state include estuaries and lakes of the state, typically from November to late March. These huge white birds with long necks, black beaks and legs, dark eyes, and yellow “teardrops” in front of the eyes can weigh as much as 21.2 pounds!
Tundra swans, as the name suggests, breed in the tundra of the Arctic and subarctic and can be found around shallow pools, lakes, and rivers. Around September, they will migrate to winter grounds on the Pacific coast (from Vancouver Island to Northern California and from southern Idaho to southern Colorado river) and around the eastern Great Lakes and the mid-Atlantic coast.
Tundra swans are the most numerous of the North American swans and are nicknamed “whistling” because of the sound their wing flapping produces. They become very aggressive and territorial during the breeding season; in other parts of the year, tundra swans are rather social birds.
They are monogamous, mate for life, and build nests near lakes and other open waters that both parents construct. The female will incubate 4-5 eggs while the male helps; both parents will raise the young. Tundra swans are omnivores and mainly feed on aquatic plants and roots, some arthropods, worms, and shellfish.
- Scientific Name: Pelecanus occidentalis
- Length: 39.4-60 in
- Wingspan: 80-90 in
- Weight: 4.4-11 lb
Brown pelicans are the second largest birds in Virginia. They have a wingspan that can reach up to 7.5 feet, weigh around 8 pounds, and have a length ranging from about 3.5 to 5 feet.
Brown pelicans couldn’t be seen in the state before 1987 when scientists documented the first breeding pair. Since then, their population has been on the rise. There are two brown pelican colonies in Virginia: South Point Marsh and Wreck Island National Area Preserve. Accomack County on the Chesapeake Bay has been home to thousands of pelicans since the end of the 20th century.
These enormous birds found along coastlines in the Americas have distinctive appearances. Brown pelicans have oversized (9 inches long) beaks, sinuous necks, and big, dark bodies. You will easily identify them by their size, chestnut-and-white necks, white-colored heads with pale yellow crowns, brown-streaked backs, rumps, and tails, and black legs and feet.
Brown pelicans also have large, expandable throat pouches. These pouches can hold up to 3 gallons of water, three times more than their bellies. They feed by diving 30 feet deep into the water to catch fish, using their beaks to scoop up their prey. They need to consume up to four pounds of fish (and perhaps some shrimp) per day to survive.
Brown Pelican Diving For Fish
Brown pelicans are monogamous for a single season, and after mating, the pair will build their nest either on the ground or in trees. Males will bring the building material and the female will build the nest. Usually, a female will lay from one to four eggs per season.
- Scientific Name: Cygnus olor
- Length: 49-67 in
- Wingspan: 79-94 in
- Weight: 18.7-32 lb
Mute swans resemble tundra swans but can be visually differentiated by the mute swans’ larger size, orange beaks, and neck and wing position (tundra swans generally hold their necks more erect and their wings lie flat to their bodies).
Mute swans were introduced to North America in the late 19th century to decorate parks and estates. These aggressive, territorial, and invasive swans will fight with trumpeter swans, pushing them out of their nesting area. Due to their large numbers and negative effect on other waterfowl and vegetation, they are considered invasive species.
Mute swans live in estuaries, city parks, golf courses, and inland waters, with the Chesapeake Bay hosting one of the largest populations of mute swans in North America. Identify mute swans by their all-white plumage, orange beaks with black borders, and pronounced knobs on top of their beaks.
In Virginia, there were around 60 mute swans in 1986 but 16 years later, in 2005, the number jumped to 725. In 2011, scientists estimated 265 mute swans – this is due to aggressive management of other states, mostly Maryland.
They were named “mute” for being less vocal than other swan species, but still produce a variety of hisses and other sounds. Mute swans measure up to 5 ft 7 in long, span 7 ft 10 in across the wings, and weigh up to 32 pounds – this makes them the largest birds in Virginia.
This concludes our list of large birds in Virginia.
Virginia is home to a diverse range of wildlife, with lots of the state’s birds seen in a variety of habitats, including forests, wetlands, and coastal areas. Some examples include eagles, turkeys, owls, herons, and swans.
If you are interested in learning more about large birds found in other US states, check the links below.