25 Brilliant Northern California Birds (Photos & Fun Facts)

Living in Northern California and saw 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 670 species of birds there. 

Examples of birds of Northern California include Anna’s hummingbird, mountain bluebird, house wren, house sparrow, American coot, osprey, bald eagle, barn owl, and many others. 

Songbirds like the tree swallow and western bluebird, raptors like the golden eagle, nuthatches like the white-breasted nuthatch, quails like the California quail, loons like the common loon, and other birds are also very common in northern parts of California. 

Some of these birds, like the barn owl and the mountain bluebird, can be seen year-round in the state, while others, like the tree swallow, will only spend summers there.

Northern California Birds

Anna’s Hummingbird

anna's hummingbird

Scientific name: Calypte anna
Lifespan: 8.5 years
Wingspan: 4.7 in

Our list of birds of Northern California starts with the beautiful Anna’s Hummingbird. 

Named after Anna Masséna, the Duchess of Rivoli, Anna’s hummingbirds can be seen year-round in Northern California.

They are stocky and medium-sized hummingbirds that have straight, shortish beaks, and fairly broad and split tails.

You will identify Anna’s hummingbirds by their iridescent bronze-green backs, pale grey chests and bellies, and green flanks. Males have iridescent reddish-pink heads and gorgets that extend to the sides of the neck and throats. Females are grayish and have green heads with a small amount of red on their throats.

Thanks to their long tongues, Anna’s hummingbirds can easily feed on flower nectar. They also eat some small insects that they catch mid-flight.

In the early 20th century, Anna’s hummingbirds only bred in northern Baja California and southern California. They have expanded their breeding range since and are now common in northern parts of the state as well. Look for them in parks and residential areas.

Scientists estimate that Anna’s hummingbirds have a population of around 1.5 million individuals.


White-breasted Nuthatch

white breasted nuthatch

Scientific name: Sitta carolinensis
Lifespan: 2 years
Wingspan: 11 in

This bird is the largest nuthatch in North America. The white-breasted nuthatch is common throughout the year in Northern California’s forests and open areas. 

You will identify this medium-sized bird by its clean blue-gray and white plumage. The male and female look very much alike, the only difference is that the female has lighter color. 

White-breasted nuthatches have small tails and almost no neck which makes them look very stocky.

These quirky and loud birds got their name from the way they crack open seeds – they will jam their seeds and nuts into tree bark, and then whack it with their beaks to open the seeds. 

To hear them, listen for a rapid series of low, nasal, whistled notes on one pitch “whi-whi” or “who-who.” Often, males will sing rapidly in the spring when they are trying to attract a mate.

White-breasted nuthatches are omnivores that feed on insects and seeds. 

They often visit backyard bird feeders so if you are lucky to attract them, their quirky personalities will provide you with endless entertainment.

These blue birds are also present year-round throughout Maryland.


Tree Swallow

blue and white tree swallow birds

Scientific name: Tachycineta bicolor
Lifespan: 3 years
Wingspan: 12-14 in

In Northern California, tree swallows can be seen mostly during summer.

They arrive as early as February, but mostly from mid-March to early April, to breed in the state. They stay in the northern parts until July and August before departing to Southern California, Mexico, and Central America to spend the winter there.

Tree swallows 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.

You will 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. 

Tree swallows are omnivores that feed on insects, mollusks, spiders, and occasionally on fruit, berries, and seeds.


Spotted Towhee

spotted towhee

Scientific name: Pipilo maculatus
Lifespan: up to 12 years
Wingspan: 11 in

This large, striking, and long-tailed sparrow is a permanent resident of Northern California where it can be seen throughout the year. 

It is common in chaparral and oak woodlands.

You will identify a spotted towhee by its plumage which is black above with white spots on its wings and back. Spotted towhee also has bright rufous sides, white belly, bright red eyes, and dull pink legs. 

This bird likes to nest on the ground or low in bushes.

Spotted towhee is a ground feeder that jumps forward with its head and tail up and kicks its legs backward.

If you look closely, you might spot one hopping along the ground, scraping away leaf litter, and looking for insects, beetles, spiders, acorns, seeds oats, and berries. 

It also likes to visit bird feeders so you might be lucky to find a spotted towhee around one.


Mountain Bluebird

mountain bluebird

Scientific name: Sialia currucoides
Lifespan: 6-9 years
Wingspan: 14 in

The mountain bluebird is a small migratory thrush. It is easy to recognize by a round head and a straight, thin beak. Males have a vivid bright sky-blue plumage.

These birds also have dark blue wings and tails while the part under the tail is white. 

As the name suggests, mountain bluebirds can be found in the mountainous habitats of Northern California. Some populations stay year-round there while others are more common during summer. 

Mountain bluebirds are omnivores that mostly feed on spiders, grasshoppers, flies, other insects, and small fruits. 

Wildlife experts estimate that there are around 4.6 million mountain bluebirds in existence today. 

These Northern California birds with blue feathers are secondary cavity nesters – mountain bluebirds will build their nests inside old woodpecker holes or naturally occurring holes in trees. 

Males are the ones that look for nests while the females make the final decision. That’s because the females are the ones that build the nest.

These blue and white birds are state birds of Idaho and Nevada. 


Western Bluebird

western bluebird

Scientific name: Sialia mexicana
Lifespan: 1-2 years
Wingspan: 10-13 in

This is the second bluebird species found in Northern California. Western bluebird is commonly found there throughout the year, although some smaller populations might only winter in those parts.

Look for birds that have deep blue-colored wings, orange breasts and sides, gray bellies, and thin straight bills. Some common places with western bluebirds include the Briones regional park, Lafayette Reservoir, Lake Lagunitas, and Las Trampas Regional Wilderness Park.

Western bluebirds are common visitors of oak woodlands, mountain conifers, valley farms, and orchards; you will often see these small North American thrushes perching upright. 

When it comes to sound identification, male western bluebirds will often make loud calls that sound like “cheer,” “churchur,” 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. Western bluebirds are omnivores that will also feed on berries. 

They look similar to the mountain bluebirds; the only difference is the throat color. Western bluebirds have blue (male) or gray (female) throats while mountain bluebirds have no orange color on themselves. 

Western bluebirds mate for life. However, one interesting 2003 study discovered that around 45% of western bluebird females had some chicks in their nests that were not sired by their current mates.


House Wren

house wren

Scientific name: Troglodytes aedon
Lifespan: up to 7 years
Wingspan: 6 in

House wrens are common backyard birds of Northern California during summer. They arrive in the state from late March to mid-April and stay there until October. Some populations that live closer to the coastal parts might even stay year-round.

You will recognize these small songbirds by their flat heads, curved beaks, pinkish or gray legs, and short tails that are usually held cocked. They usually have subdued brown plumage with blackish barrings on their wings and tails. 

House wrens got their name due to their tendency to nest around human homes and in birdhouses. 

One part of their scientific name, aedon, comes from a Greek queen who tried to kill her nephew but ended up killing her only son instead. To punish her, Zeus turned her into a nightingale.

There are 32 subspecies of house wrens. Look for them around backyards, parks, or open woods, and listen for their rush-and-jumble songs. House wrens will often make different harsh sounds: churrs, chatters, rattles, and scolds.

They might never visit your bird feeder but house wrens will fly through your backyard hunting insects.


Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

blue gray gnatcatcher

Scientific name: Polioptila caerulea
Lifespan: 3-4 years
Wingspan: 6 in

This angry-looking bird can be found during summer in northern parts of California, usually from March until September.

During their breeding season, male blue-gray gnatcatchers will develop dark, V-shaped “eyebrow” markings that make them look like they are constantly annoyed. 

Notice the pale blue-gray color of the heads and the upperparts and white underparts in males. Females are less blue, while juveniles are greenish-gray. 

Look for blue-gray gnatcatchers around open woods, oaks, pines, and thickets.

These small songbirds are native to North America. Out of the four species of gnatcatchers in North America, the blue-gray gnatcatcher is the most common one.

It is a monogamous bird that mates for life. Males can be particularly aggressive and will chase larger birds away from feeding areas or their nesting territory. 

Read More: Stunning black and white birds of Colorado


California Thrasher

california thrasher
Joshua Tree National Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Scientific name: Toxostoma redivivum
Lifespan: up to 9 years
Wingspan: 12 in 

Common around coastal parts of Northern California, these large and long-tailed songbirds can be often seen around chaparral, oak woodland, and riparian habitats. 

They are easy to recognize by their long and decurved beaks, cocked tails, and gray-brown plumage. 

California thrashers also have grayish buff supercilium over their dark eyes that resemble eyebrows. 

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. 

They breed in the state from January/February until July and both parents will build the nest, incubate their clutch of three to four eggs, and feed the young.


House Sparrow

house sparrow

Scientific name: Passer domesticus
Lifespan: 3-5 years
Wingspan: 9 in 

House sparrows are permanent residents of Northern California. They are an introduced species that is commonly found in urban and cropland habitats and other areas of human habitation, especially near livestock.

House sparrows are small brightly colored birds, with gray heads, white cheeks, black bibs, and reddish-brown necks. 

They have very shallow tails with very small splits. House sparrows are the most widely distributed wild birds; the oldest recorded captive house sparrow lived 23 years. 

They feed on grains and seeds, discarded food, and insects.

House sparrows got introduced from Europe into the eastern United States in the 1850s. The first record of this bird in California (San Francisco Bay area) was in the early 1870s.


Evening Grosbeak

pronounced eyebrows on a evening grosbeak head

Scientific name: Coccothraustes vespertinus
Lifespan: 15-16 years
Wingspan: 12-14 in

Evening grosbeaks are birds with prominent bright-yellow eyebrows that can be seen year-round in northernmost parts of Northern California. They will only winter in the rest of the state.

Evening grosbeaks are irregular migrators – they don’t have a particular pattern they follow and their migration is usually affected by the available food, particularly crops in coniferous forests.

These large and stocky finches have thick beaks and necks, full chests, and relatively short tails. 

Males are big, mustard-yellow, with very prominent gold eyebrows, and white stripes on their wings. 

During winter, evening Grosbeaks can be seen on roadways eating raw salt and fine gravel off of the roads. 

They are very fast eaters that can devour almost 100 sunflower seeds in five minutes.


Yellow Warbler

american yellow warbler

Scientific name: Setophaga petechia
Lifespan: up to 10 years 
Wingspan: 6.3-8.7 in 

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 Northern California from spring to fall. 

Yellow warblers are diurnal birds and omnivores, feeding on insects such as leafhoppers, beetles, wasps, midges, and caterpillars. During winter, they might also eat some berries and fruits. 

To attract females, male yellow warblers will produce over 3,000 whistling songs per day. On the other hand, when defending their territories, males will make loud “hissing” calls. 

These small yellow birds in Northern California have a clutch of 3-6 eggs.


Red-winged Blackbird

red-winged blackbird

Scientific name: Agelaius phoeniceus
Lifespan: 2 years in the wild
Wingspan: 12-16 in

Commonly found around marshes and agricultural fields in Northern California throughout the year, the red-winged blackbird is one of North America’s most abundant birds. There are over 20 subspecies of these birds.

Their scientific name “agelaios” means “gregarious,” while the “phoeniceus” means “crimson” or “red,” which perfectly describes these birds.

Male red-winged blackbirds have black plumage with red epaulets that are edged in yellow. They will often make red-shoulder displays and emit scratchy “oak-a-lee” calls. 

Females are smaller, streaky brown above, and dark and white under. They have a scolding chatter that sounds like “chit chit cheer teer teer teerr.” 

Red-winged blackbirds are omnivores and feed on insects, seeds, and grain. 

They have a clutch of three to four pale blue-green eggs with dark streaks. 

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.


Common Goldeneye

male common goldeneye

Scientific name: Bucephala clangula
Lifespan: up to 20 years
Wingspan: 30.3-32.7 in

Commonly found in northern California during winter, the common goldeneye can be recognized by its large head and a fairly small and narrow beak. 

This medium-sized sea duck has mostly black and white plumage, a black-green head, and a crisp black-and-white body. Common goldeneye got their name for its golden-yellow eyes.

These birds generally migrate late in fall and early in spring, in small, loose flocks. They will spend the winter in California, among other states. You will have the best chance of finding them from November to March there.

In case you decide to look for them, watch for flocks on fairly large bodies of water, their distinctively shaped heads, and the bright yellow eyes that can be seen from afar. 

Common goldeneyes are aggressive and territorial ducks that have elaborate courtship rituals. 

Males often bend their heads backward to touch their rumps, thrust forward, and kick up water with their feet to seduce a female.

Common goldeneyes are water-diving birds that feed on crustaceans, aquatic insects, and mollusks.


Common Merganser

common merganser

Scientific name: Mergus merganser
Lifespan: up to 13 years
Wingspan: 34-37 in 

The largest of the three merganser species in North America, common mergansers are year-round residents in the northernmost parts of California. Some populations that only winter in California will move north along the coast by March.

These large fish-eating ducks have sleek bodies and thin red beaks. You will recognize males by their striking clean white bodies and black-green heads; females have elegant gray plumage and cinnamon-colored heads with short crests. 

Common mergansers live mainly on freshwater rivers and lakes, so you should look for ducks sitting on rocks in midstream, disappearing around the bends, or flying along the river. 

You might spot gulls waiting for the ducks to come to the surface with fish and then trying to steal their prey. 


California Quail

california quail

Scientific name: Callipepla californica
Lifespan: 1 year 
Wingspan: 12-14 in

The California quail is the state bird of California. It is also known as the California valley quail and it is a permanent resident of northern parts of the state. 

You will find this small bird around lowlands, chaparral habitats, and woodlands throughout the year. 

Listen for its “chicago” calls and contact and warning “pip“ calls. 

The California quail is easy to notice by its crest (plume) that curves forward; males have it black, while the female ones are brown. 

It also has a brown or black plumage with white streaks and a bluish-gray to light yellow color on its belly. 

This ground-dwelling bird has wings but prefers to run – California quail can reach impressive speeds of 12 mph. 

They are very social birds, and to keep others safe from predators, one bird will act as a protector while others eat. 

California quails are omnivores that mostly feed on seeds and leaves, some acorns, berries, flowers, bulbs, and insects.


Downy Woodpecker

downy woodpecker

Scientific name: Picoides pubescens
Lifespan: up to 11 years
Wingspan: 10-12 in 

Downy woodpeckers can be seen around backyard feeders, parks, and woodlots in the northern parts of California throughout the year.

You will identify this smallest species of woodpeckers by the black color of the upperparts and wings, white backs, throats, and bellies, and white spottings on their wings.

Try to spot the white bar above and below the eyes. Also, adult male downy woodpeckers have red patches on the back of their heads. 

These Northern California woodpeckers can hit the tree bark over 10 times per second and have special feathers around their nostrils to save them from breathing in wood chips. 

Downy woodpeckers are omnivores that mostly feed on insects, beetle larvae, ants, and caterpillars, but also berries, acorns, and grains. 

Look for them around bird feeders, they will often eat suet and black oil sunflower seeds and occasionally drink from hummingbird feeders. 

Downy woodpeckers are monogamous and the pair will together prepare a nest in the tree. The female will then lay from 3 to 8 eggs.

These woodpeckers are also common in Northern Texas.


Western Kingbird

western kingbird

Scientific name: Tyrannus verticalis
Lifespan: up to 6 years 
Wingspan: 15.5 in

Western kingbirds are a common sight around roadside fences and wires of Northern California. These birds can be seen in the state from spring until fall. 

You will recognize western kingbirds by their gray heads and chests, olive backs, yellow bellies, and dark tails; western kingbirds are very common in the open country.

They are omnivores and feed on insects, berries, and fruits. 

Western kingbirds are extremely territorial and aggressive. They will ferociously defend their territories, charging fearlessly at much larger birds such as hawks, attacking even humans, livestock, and pets if they think their young are in danger. 

Western kingbirds nest in a tree or shrub, occasionally on utility poles, empty sheds, or other man-made structures.


Double-crested Cormorant

long eyebrows of a double crested cormorant

Scientific name: Phalacrocorax auritus
Lifespan: 6-17 years
Wingspan: 45-50 in

These large waterbirds are present in northern parts of the state year-round. Double-crested cormorants are the most widespread cormorant species in North America and are common around coasts and large inland lakes.

According to recent studies, the population of these birds in the Humboldt Bay area of the North Coast of California has increased from 169 nests in the 1970s to 1192 in 2017.

They have small heads, long necks, and thin, strongly hooked beaks. 

When the breeding season starts, bushy white eyebrows (feathery tufts) will appear on a male cormorant’s head. 

They are some of the deepest diving birds that can go around 25 feet deep underwater and stay there for up to 4 minutes. 

Despite being excellent swimmers and divers, double-crested cormorants do not have fully waterproof feathers and can be seen standing on the shore, with their wings spread to dry. 

The oldest documented wild double-crested cormorant lived to be almost 18 years old.

These large birds can be also seen in Central Florida.


American Coot

american coot

Scientific name: Fulica americana
Lifespan: around 9 years
Wingspan: 23-25 in

Common year-round in Northern California, American coots are small, all-black birds with bright white beaks. In the state, these birds can be seen in large flocks or together with ducks and geese on flooded rice fields or wetlands.

Although they resemble ducks, American coots are only distantly related to them. And unlike the webbed feet of ducks, American coots have lobed scales on their legs and toes that allow them to walk easily on land.

They have a slaty-colored plumage, red irises, green legs, and leaf-like toes. You will also notice a white frontal shield on their foreheads.

Listen for male alarm calls that sound like “puhlk” and “poonk” female alarm calls.


Common Loon

common loon

Scientific name: Gavia immer
Lifespan: 20-30 years
Wingspan: 50-57.8 in

Common loons are the largest species of loon found in coastal areas of Northern California. These diving waterbirds are also known as the great northern divers and can be seen in the state during winter.

You will easily spot common loons by the rounded head and dagger-like beaks. They are known for their eerie, beautiful calls called the wail, tremolo, yodel, and hoot. 

During summer, adults have black heads and bills, white breast color, and black-and-white spots on their backs. By the time these loons reach south, the dramatic black and white colors will change into a winter plumage of dull dark gray with white on the front of the neck and breast.

Common loons are excellent divers that can stealthily submerge without a splash to catch fish. They can go over 200 feet below the water’s surface, stay there for up to 5 minutes, and swallow their prey underwater.

Common loons mostly feed on fish, crustaceans, insect larvae, mollusks, and occasionally aquatic plants. 

They are monogamous and the pair may breed together for a decade or more. Both the male and the female will often together defend a territory. 

The common loon is a state bird of Minnesota, a provincial bird of Ontario (Canada), and one of 5 species of loon common in Canada.


Osprey

osprey

Scientific name: Pandion haliaetus 
Lifespan: 15-20 years
Wingspan: 50–71 in

With a wingspan of almost 6 feet, ospreys are one of the largest raptors found in northern parts of California. These huge birds can be seen throughout the year in those areas, although they are more abundant during winter.

Ospreys are piscivorous and fish makes up 99% of their diet. You will mostly find them near water, just as one might expect from a fish-eating bird.

If you live near the Sacramento River and its many lakes and tributaries, you will have a great chance of seeing this bird.

Pay close attention to diurnal birds with brown upperparts and predominantly greyish heads and underparts. 

One of the characteristics of ospreys is the reversible outer toe that allows them to grasp with two toes in front and two behind. Such adaptation prevents fish from slipping away. 

They are also known as “sea hawks” or “fish hawks” and will hover above the water, locate their prey and then swoop down for the capture with their talons extended. 

During their 20-year-long lifetime, these migratory birds can travel over 160,000 miles.


Golden Eagle

golden eagle

Scientific name: Aquila chrysaetos
Lifespan: up to 30 years
Wingspan: 70.8-90.1 in

Northern California is lucky to see one of North America’s largest eagle species, the golden eagle. This enormous bird can be seen throughout the year in the northern parts of the state. 

Golden eagles breed in the state from late January through August. They are monogamous, stay together for life, and have a clutch of one to three eggs. Golden eagles will often construct nests on platforms on steep cliffs or in large trees.

Golden eagles are one of the largest, fastest, and most agile birds of prey in North America. 

They can be identified by their overall dark brown plumage and the lighter golden-brown color of their napes.

Golden eagles are listed as a fully protected species in California.

Their agility and speed together with powerful feet and large, sharp talons allow golden eagles to hunt rabbits, hares, ground squirrels, and other animals like prairie dogs.


Bald Eagle

bald eagle

Scientific name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Lifespan: 20-30 years in the wild
Wingspan: 70.8-90.5 in

Bald eagles are one of the largest raptors of Northern California. In these parts of the state, these magnificent birds can be seen year-round. 

Bald eagles are common around mountain lakes, rivers, and some rangelands and coastal wetlands. 

They breed from January to July or August in California and build the largest nests of any North American bird that can be up to 13 ft deep and 8.2 ft wide. 

You will recognize them by their commanding presence, white heads and tails, brown color, and bright yellow bills. Bald eagles are hard to miss as they soar through the air with their 7.5-foot-wide wingspan. 

They are carnivores and opportunistic feeders that mostly consume fish, which they snatch from the water with their sharp talons.

They are also one of the largest birds of prey found in Texas, Ohio, and Florida.


Barn Owl

barn owl

Scientific name: Tyto alba
Lifespan: 4 years
Wingspan: 31-37 in 

Barn owls are the most widely distributed species of owl in the world. They are permanent residents of California and can be seen in its northern parts throughout the year. 

These nocturnal birds of prey are common around open fields, riparian areas, and farms. Barn owls will often perch on branches, fence posts, or other lookouts and scan their surroundings.

You will recognize them by their ghostly appearance, heart-shaped heads, cinnamon and gray upperparts, and white underparts. 

Notice the dark eyes, white legs, and a hooked upper beak that is used to tear meat. 

Unlike some other species of owl, the barn owl does not hoot and makes a piercing eerie “shree” scream. 

Barn owl hunts animals on the ground which it locates by sound, thanks to its acute hearing and excellent eyesight.

It will swallow its entire prey and several times a day it might spit out pellets of fur and undigested material. 

These birds are monogamous and stay together for life.

Read More: Birds that live in Southern California


Summary

This concludes our list of birds in Northern California. 

There are many types of birds inhabiting northern parts of California, including several songbirds, raptors, quails, woodpeckers, owls, ducks, hummingbirds, and many others.

Next time you see any of these birds in person, you should be able to recognize them with ease!

And if you enjoyed our article, here are our other popular reads on birds: 25+ examples of birds in Central Texas, 40+ birds that have orange bills, and 25+ examples of songbirds of Florida

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