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10 Small Black Birds in California

small black birds in california
Brewer’s Blackbird in Santa Clara, California: Photo by Jared Keyes

Introduction

California is home to a remarkable variety of small black colored birds that occupy habitats from marshlands to mountain forests. Their dark plumage provides camouflage and heat regulation. In this blog, we’ll highlight some of the most notable small black birds to observe.

Small Black Birds in California

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

  • Features: The pied-billed grebe is a small waterbird with a black head and spotted dark brown body. Its thick bill has a pale stripe in the center. This grebe sinks low in the water and dives to find food.
  • Locations: Found year-round inhabiting ponds, lakes, and wetlands across California. 
  • Fun Fact: The pied-billed grebe builds a floating nest attached to emergent aquatic vegetation where it lays 5-10 eggs.

Vaux’s Swift (Chaetura vauxi

  • Features: A small cigar-shaped bird with dark brown, almost black, plumage. It has a stout body with curved wings for fast flight. The Vaux’s swift makes loud screaming calls. 
  • Locations: It breeds in forest openings across northern California and migrates through the south in huge flocks.
  • Fun Fact: This species nests in large communal roosts inside hollow trees or chimneys where it clings vertically to walls. 

White-throated Swift (Aeronautes saxatalis)

  • Features: The white-throated swift is a small black bird with a white throat patch and sharply pointed wings. It flies rapidly, even through tight cliff spaces. Its voice is a harsh twittering.
  • Locations: Found nesting on cliff walls and foraging widely over many habitats of western North America.
  • Fun Fact: This unique swift can even sleep in flight by gliding through the night. It snatches insects on the wing.

Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans

  • Features: A small flycatcher with entirely black plumage and a pale lower belly. It constantly wags its tail downwards. The phoebe’s call is a scratchy “phip” note. 
  • Locations: It breeds and winters in a variety of open and partly wooded habitats across California.
  • Fun Fact: The black phoebe nests under bridges, in culverts, and on cliff ledges, building an open cup nest out of mud and grass.

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

  • Features: The dark-eyed junco is a common sparrow with a rounded head and a short, conical bill. Plumage is dark gray or brown above and lighter below. Females are brownish. 
  • Locations: Abundant year-round resident across California that frequents backyards and woodland areas.
  • Fun Fact: Different populations of juncos around North America are classified into several subspecies groups that can vary greatly in appearance.

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus)

  • Features: The yellow-headed blackbird is a medium-sized marsh bird. Males are black with a bright yellow head and breast, while females are browner. This species has an oriole-like voice.
  • Locations: It is found year-round in freshwater marshes across California. Nests attached to wetland vegetation. 
  • Fun Fact: The yellow-headed blackbird is highly social and nests in dense colonies of as many as 10,000 pairs.

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus

  • Features: This blackbird male is all black with prominent red “shoulders.” The female is streaky brown. Red-wings make a raspy shreee call and have pointed conical bills.
  • Locations: Abundant in wetlands and fields across California year-round. Often seen perched on reeds and cattails.
  • Fun Fact: Huge flocks migrate across North America each year. Males defend breeding territories with songflight displays.

Tricolored Blackbird (Agelaius tricolor

  • Features: A medium-sized blackbird with striking male plumage: black with bright red shoulder patch and white median coverts. Female is dark brown.
  • Locations: Year-round resident of California’s Central Valley wetlands and grasslands. Forms huge breeding colonies. 
  • Fun Fact: A highly social species adapted to foraging on agricultural grain fields. State listed as threatened.

Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)

  • Features: The brown-headed cowbird is a small, stocky blackbird. The male is glossy black with a brown head. Female is gray-brown with strong finch-like bill. 
  • Locations: Often seen following livestock across open ranch lands and pastures in California.
  • Fun Fact: A brood parasite that lays eggs in other bird’s nests, leaving chick rearing to host species. Flocks gather to roost. 

Brewer’s Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus

  • Features: Medium-sized blackbird with yellow eyes and pointed bill. Male is iridescent black with glossy purple-green sheen. Female is dark brown.
  • Locations: Found year-round in open habitats across California, often near water. Forms large winter flocks.
  • Fun Fact: Feeds on a wide range of insects, grains and seeds on the ground. Nest is an open cup in a bush or tree. 

Threats and Conservation

Small black birds face threats like habitat loss in their specialized niches. Marsh and water birds can suffer from pollution and water diversion. Many species are declining. Habitat protection initiatives aimed at wetlands and forests help.

Citizen Science and eBird

eBird allows users to log sightings of small black birds which provides researchers with valuable population and distribution data. Information on winter movements is particularly useful. Continued monitoring helps shape conservation.

Conclusion 

California serves as an important wintering and breeding ground for diverse small black-colored birds, from tiny songbirds to waterbirds. Look for them in wetlands, forests, and your own backyard. Observe their behaviors and movements while contributing to science.