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13 Big Black Birds in Texas

big black birds in texas
Black Vulture in Colorado, Texas: Photo by Ad Konings

Introduction

Texas boasts a diverse avian population, with a variety of big black birds adding intrigue to its skies and landscapes. From graceful waterfowl to majestic raptors and distinctive seabirds, these species contribute to the state’s rich biodiversity. In this blog post, we’ll explore some of the magnificent big black birds in Texas, highlighting their unique characteristics, behaviors, habitats, conservation status, and more.

Big Black Birds in Texas

Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris):

  • Features: A petite diving duck characterized by its unique head shape—a sloping forehead and peaked rear crown. When diving, the crown flattens. During flight, Ring-necked Ducks present with a large head, slender neck, and compact, rounded body. Male ducks exhibit bold black-and-gray plumage, featuring a dark head, black back, and gray flanks adorned with a white hash mark on the chest. Females showcase a rich brown coloration with a contrasting pale cheek, a white patch near the bill, and a whitish eyering. Adult males notably display a prominent white ring encircling the bill.
  • Behavior: Ring-necked Ducks are frequently observed in small flocks or pairs, engaging in diving behavior to forage for mollusks, invertebrates, and submerged aquatic plants. Occasionally, they may gather alongside scaup ducks, while at other times, they may be seen mingling with dabbling ducks.
  • Habitat: You can spot Ring-necked Ducks on smaller water bodies compared to other diving ducks. During winter and migration, they can be found in places like beaver ponds, small lakes, marshes, cattle ponds, or flooded agricultural fields throughout North America. They typically breed in freshwater marshes, bogs, and other shallow, often acidic wetlands.
  • Range: Common at suitable habitat throughout the state, perhaps less common in the west and south.
  • Fun Fact: Throughout the autumn migration period, Ring-necked Ducks have a tendency to gather in massive groups. On specific lakes in Minnesota, hundreds of thousands assemble each fall to indulge in wild rice feasts.

Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo):

  • Features: Wild Turkeys are sizable and robust birds, characterized by long legs, wide rounded tails, and a small head atop a slender neck. They possess a dark coloration throughout, often displaying a bronze-green iridescence on most of their feathers. Their wings exhibit dark hues, prominently marked with white bars. Rusty or white tips adorn their rump and tail feathers. The exposed skin on their head and neck ranges in color from red to blue to gray.
  • Behavior: Turkeys move together in groups and look for nuts, berries, insects, and snails on the ground. They use their powerful feet to scratch away leaves. During early spring, male turkeys gather in open areas to show off for potential mates. They puff up their feathers, spread their tails like a fan, and strut around slowly while making their distinctive gobbling sound. At night, turkeys fly up into trees to sleep together.
  • Habitat: Wild Turkeys make their homes in mature forests, especially near nut-bearing trees like oak, hickory, or beech. They also inhabit areas with edges and fields. You might spot them near roads or in wooded yards. After being hunted extensively in many areas, turkeys were reintroduced and have become plentiful once more.
  • Range: Fairly common and regular throughout the state.
  • Fun Fact: The wild turkey is one of the few domesticated birds native to North America and was domesticated by Native American cultures centuries ago.

Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata):

  • Features: Common Gallinules are medium-sized marsh birds with long legs and toes. They have small heads, thin necks, and thin bills. When swimming, their wings often stick up on their backs. These birds are mostly charcoal gray with a white stripe down their sides and white outer tail feathers. Adults feature a bright red shield on their forehead and a red bill tipped in yellow. Immature birds resemble adults but lack the red shield and bill.
  • Behavior: Common Gallinules swim like ducks, moving their head forward, and walk atop marsh vegetation like rails. While walking, they crouch down and slowly flick their tails up, revealing white undertail feathers. They typically remain near emergent marsh vegetation but occasionally swim out in the open.
  • Habitat: They inhabit freshwater or brackish marshes, ponds, and lakes containing a variety of submerged, floating, and emergent vegetation, as well as open water. They also forage in smaller ditches, canals, and rice fields.
  • Range: Common Gallinules are most common on Texas’s Gulf of Mexico coastline but can be observed through much of the rest of the state if habitat is right.
  • Fun Fact: During the twentieth century, Common Gallinules extended their territory further northward. They began nesting in Pennsylvania in 1904, and currently, they breed as far north as the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

American Coot (Fulica americana):

  • Features: The American Coot resembles a plump, chicken-like bird with a rounded head and a sloping bill. Their tiny tail, short wings, and large feet become visible on rare occasions when they take flight. Coots are dark gray to black birds with a bright white bill and forehead. Their legs are yellow-green, and at close range, a small patch of red may be visible on the forehead.
  • Behavior: Coots can be spotted feeding on aquatic plants in nearly any body of water. While swimming, they resemble small ducks and often dive, but on land, their appearance is more chicken-like, as they walk rather than waddle. The American Coot is an awkward and sometimes clumsy flyer, typically requiring long running takeoffs to become airborne.
  • Habitat: Search for American Coots at ponds within city parks, marshes, reservoirs, along lake edges, and in roadside ditches. You may also find them in sewage treatment ponds and saltwater inlets or salt marshes.
  • Range: Given the right environment, American Coots are pretty common all over Texas.
  • Fun Fact: Despite their duck-like appearance, American coots are not ducks but belong to the rail family, Rallidae, along with other waterbirds such as gallinules and moorhens.

Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger):

  • Features: A seabird resembling a medium-sized tern, characterized by very long wings and a disproportionately large bill, with the lower mandible notably longer than the upper. It has a striking black upper body and white underbody, complemented by a black-and-red bill and orange-red legs. Juveniles exhibit a brownish upper body with wing covert feathers edged in pale coloration.
  • Behavior: Skimmers exhibit a unique flight pattern, typically flying very close to the water. Their flight is characterized by long upstrokes and short downstrokes, allowing them to stay clear of the water’s surface. This creates a distinctive bounding or ranging style to their flight.
  • Habitat: Coastal shores and islands adjacent to oceans or the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Range: As expected, Black Skimmers are most commonly seen along the Gulf of Mexico coast in southeast Texas. Scattered records elsewhere in the east of the state.
  • Fun Fact: Black skimmers have vertically oriented pupils, which allow them to keep their heads level while flying low over the water, scanning for prey.

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger):

  • Features: This seabird is small and delicately built, featuring a thin, pointed bill; long, pointed wings; a shallowly forked tail; and short legs. Adults in breeding plumage display dark gray upperparts with black heads and underparts. Their underwings and undertail coverts are pale. Nonbreeding adults appear gray above and whitish below, with a dusky crown, ear-patch, and mark at the side of the breast. Juveniles resemble nonbreeding adults but exhibit a brown scaled pattern on the upperparts.
  • Behavior: Black Terns hunt by flying slowly and gracefully, either dipping to the water’s surface to catch small fish or insects or catching insects mid-flight. They nest in colonies on freshwater lakes, typically making nests on floating vegetation. These birds frequently gather in flocks.
  • Habitat: Breeds in freshwater marshes and bogs; migrates to coastal lagoons, marshes, and open ocean waters during winter. Migratory individuals may pause in nearly any wetland habitat along their journey.
  • Range: Most frequent along the coast, but individuals can be observed throughout the whole state occasionally.
  • Fun Fact: Black terns are known for their “tern-hover,” a behavior where they hover in mid-air over the water before plunging headfirst to catch prey, reminiscent of a miniature falcon.

Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens):

  • Features: Magnificent Frigatebirds are large seabirds characterized by long, angular wings and a deeply forked tail typically held closed to a point. They possess a long, sturdy bill with a prominently hooked tip. While predominantly black, females and juveniles display varying amounts of white on the head, chest, and belly. Females exhibit a white chest and dark head, while juveniles start with a white head and belly that gradually darken. Additionally, young birds feature a pale tan streak on the upper wing. Breeding males are entirely black except for the bright red throat pouch, which may not always be visible.
  • Behavior: Magnificent Frigatebirds gracefully soar over the ocean, with their wings outstretched and their head drawn into their shoulders. They seldom flap their wings, but when they do, their movements are slow and deep. Unlike typical oceanic birds, they don’t dive for fish. Instead, they skillfully skim fish from the water’s surface or pursue other birds, compelling them to relinquish their recent catch.
  • Habitat: Magnificent Frigatebirds glide over tropical and subtropical oceans across the Americas. They search for food both in lagoons and far out at sea, and they build their nests in low-growing scrub vegetation on islands.
  • Range: Find these massive birds along Texas’s coast in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Fun Fact: The Magnificent Frigatebird primarily spends its life gliding effortlessly above the ocean. Despite having webbed feet, it seldom touches down on the water due to its lack of waterproof feathers, unlike other seabirds.

Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga):

  • Features: Anhingas are sizable and slender waterbirds with elongated fanlike tails reminiscent of a turkey’s tail. They feature a long, S-shaped neck and a dagger-shaped bill. When in flight, Anhingas resemble a flying cross, with wings held flat and the neck and tail extending straight out. They possess streamlined bodies, appearing somewhat flattened during flight. Adult male Anhingas exhibit black plumage with silvery to white streaks on the back and wings. Females and juveniles showcase a pale tan head, neck, and breast. Their bill, legs, and feet have a yellowish-orange hue.
  • Behavior: Anhingas swim with their bodies partly or fully submerged, while their long, snakelike necks are partially extended above the water. After swimming, they often perch on branches or logs to dry their feathers, extending their wings and spreading their tails. They are known to soar at great heights in the sky, utilizing thermals similar to raptors and vultures.
  • Habitat: Throughout the year, Anhingas reside in shallow freshwater lakes, ponds, and slow-moving streams where branches or logs are available near the water for drying and sunbathing. They may also frequent brackish bays and lagoons along the coast, but they typically avoid areas with vast expanses of open water.
  • Range: Most common along Texas’s coastline, but can also be occasionally observed elsewhere in the eastern half of the state, which is the western extent species general distribution.
  • Fun Fact: Anhingas lack the waterproofing oils found in the plumage of ducks and other waterfowl, which allows them to dive more easily but requires them to dry their feathers after swimming.

Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus):

  • Features: Double-crested Cormorants are sizable waterbirds characterized by small heads atop long, kinked necks. They possess thin, strongly hooked bills, approximately the length of their heads, and their heavy bodies rest low in the water. Adults exhibit a brown-black plumage with a small patch of yellow-orange skin on the face. Immature birds are generally browner in color, with the lightest tones on the neck and breast. During the breeding season, adults develop a small double crest of either black or white feathers.
  • Behavior: Double-crested Cormorants glide close to the surface of the water and dive to capture small fish. Following their fishing excursions, they perch on docks, rocks, and tree limbs with their wings spread open to dry. When flying, they frequently migrate in V-shaped formations, reorganizing as they switch between bursts of choppy flapping and brief glides.
  • Habitat: Double-crested Cormorants are the most commonly encountered cormorant species across North America, particularly in freshwater habitats. They breed along the coastlines and on expansive inland lakes, often establishing colonies of stick nests constructed high in trees on islands or within flooded timber areas.
  • Range: Double-crested Cormorants are fairly common throughout the entire state, but more so in the east.
  • Fun Fact: Double-crested Cormorant nests are frequently under direct sunlight. Adult birds provide shade for the chicks and also supply them with water by pouring it from their mouths into the mouths of the chicks.

Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus):

  • Features: This slender waterbird, relatively small among cormorants, features a long neck, a rather elongated tail, and a fairly thin, straight bill with a hooked tip. It possesses broad wings and large webbed feet. Adult birds exhibit black plumage with orange skin on the throat, framed by a thin white line. In optimal lighting and at close range, a faint olive sheen can be observed on the wings. During the breeding season, adults develop a small tuft of white feathers near the ear. Juveniles resemble adults but have pale brownish heads, necks, and breasts.
  • Behavior: The bird dives for fish, typically from the water’s surface like a duck but occasionally from the air. It dries its feathers by extending its wings for extended periods while standing out of the water. Breeding occurs in colonies around freshwater lakes, with nests constructed in trees. It often gathers in small flocks, resting near the water’s edge on land, islands, or in trees.
  • Habitat: Builds nests either in trees or on bare ground adjacent to water, frequently on barrier islands or small lakeside islands. Forages in nearly any sheltered body of water, ranging from tranquil coastal bays to marshes, swamps, rivers, ponds, reservoirs, and inland fish farms.
  • Range: Neotropic Cormorants share a similar range in Texas to the Double-crested Cormorants, being most common along the coast and eastern parts of the state.
  • Fun Fact: The Neotropic Cormorant stands out as the sole cormorant species known for plunging from midair into water to capture fish. Unlike gannets and boobies, it does not dive from significant heights, limiting its plunges to less than 2 feet above the water’s surface.

Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus):

  • Features: Black Vultures are large birds of prey. During flight, they maintain their broad, rounded wings flat and slightly forward. Their tails are notably short and rounded. Featuring small, bare heads and narrow yet strongly hooked bills, these birds display a uniform black coloration, occasionally with white patches or “stars” on the underside of their wingtips (which may be difficult to discern in bright light or from a distance). The exposed skin of their heads is black.
  • Behavior: Throughout the day, Black Vultures soar in groups, frequently alongside Turkey Vultures and hawks. Their flight pattern is notable: vigorous wingbeats alternated with brief glides, resulting in a batlike appearance. Keep an eye out for them along highway edges, scavenging roadkill, and rummaging through dumpsters. They gather in communal roosts in trees and on transmission towers, often lingering until the morning air warms and thermals form.
  • Habitat: Search for Black Vultures in clearings within forested terrain. They commonly build nests and settle in wooded regions, venturing above open spaces to find sustenance. Over recent decades, Black Vultures have notably expanded their territory further northward.
  • Range: Black Vultures are common through much of Texas, but are largely absent from the panhandle.
  • Fun Fact: Black Vultures do not possess a voice box, thus their vocal repertoire is restricted to producing raspy hisses and grunts.

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura):

  • Features: Turkey Vultures are large birds with expansive, dark wings. They surpass most other raptors in size, rivaled only by eagles and condors. Their wings feature elongated “fingers” at the tips, and their tails extend beyond their toe tips during flight. When soaring, Turkey Vultures hold their wings slightly raised, forming a distinct ‘V’ shape when viewed head-on. While appearing black from a distance, they are actually dark brown up close, with a featherless red head and a pale bill. While most of their body and forewing are dark, the undersides of their flight feathers, along the trailing edge and wingtips, are paler, creating a two-toned appearance.
  • Behavior: Turkey Vultures are impressive yet somewhat unsteady gliders. Their distinctive flight, characterized by minimal wingbeats and a teetering motion, is easily recognizable. Keep an eye out for them gliding relatively close to the ground, scanning for carrion, or ascending on thermals to reach higher perches. They may soar in small clusters and congregate in larger roosts. Additionally, you might spot them on the ground in small gatherings, clustered around roadkill or dumpsters.
  • Habitat: Turkey Vultures are frequently found in open environments like roadsides, suburban areas, farmland, rural landscapes, and locations with abundant food sources such as landfills, garbage dumps, and construction sites. On sunny days, you can spot them soaring as early as 9 a.m. In colder weather and during nighttime, they typically roost on poles, towers, dead trees, and fence posts.
  • Range: Turkey Vultures are common all over Texas.
  • Fun Fact: Turkey vultures have a unique defense mechanism known as “urohidrosis,” where they defecate on their legs to cool off and disinfect themselves from harmful bacteria acquired while feeding on carrion.

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus):

  • Features: The Pileated Woodpecker is a notably large species with a long neck and a triangular crest extending from the back of the head. It possesses a long, chisel-like bill, approximately the length of its head. During flight, its broad wings may give it a resemblance to a crow. Pileated Woodpeckers exhibit predominantly black plumage with white stripes on the face and neck, as well as a vibrant red crest. Males additionally feature a red stripe on the cheek. In flight, the bird displays extensive white underwings and small white crescents at the bases of the primaries on the upper side.
  • Behavior: Pileated Woodpeckers bore characteristic rectangular-shaped holes in decayed wood to access carpenter ants and other insects. They are vocal birds, emitting whinnying calls. Additionally, they drum on dead trees with a deep, slow, rolling pattern, and their heavy chopping sounds while foraging are easily audible. During flight, they exhibit an undulating motion typical of woodpeckers, distinguishing them from the straight flight path of crows.
  • Habitat: Pileated Woodpeckers are woodland inhabitants that depend on extensive, standing dead trees and fallen timber. These woodlands can consist of evergreen, deciduous, or mixed trees and are typically mature or old-growth forests. In the Eastern regions, they also inhabit young forests and may occasionally be spotted in partially wooded suburban areas and backyard settings.
  • Range: Pileated Woodpeckers are uncommon residents in much of the eastern half of Texas.
  • Fun Fact: The Pileated Woodpecker creates distinctively rectangular holes in trees while foraging for ants. These excavations can be so wide and deep that they may cause small trees to split in half.

Threats and Conservation

Birds in Texas face various threats to their populations, including habitat loss due to urbanization, agriculture, and energy development, as well as climate change impacts such as extreme weather events and habitat fragmentation. Bird species are also susceptible to collisions with structures like buildings and communication towers, pesticide exposure, and invasive species. Conservation efforts are crucial to mitigate these threats, and organizations like Audubon Texas and the Texas Ornithological Society play significant roles in protecting bird habitats, conducting research, advocating for conservation policies, and engaging communities in bird conservation initiatives across the state.

Citizen Science

Citizen science plays a vital role in monitoring bird populations and understanding their distribution and behaviors in Texas. Projects like eBird, managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, allow bird enthusiasts to contribute their sightings and observations to a global database, providing valuable data for scientists and conservationists. In addition to eBird, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department coordinates the Texas Nature Trackers program, engaging citizens in monitoring various wildlife species, including birds, across the state. These citizen science initiatives empower individuals to actively participate in scientific research and conservation efforts while fostering a deeper connection to the natural world.

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Conclusion

The big black birds of Texas, including species like the Turkey Vulture and the Neotropic Cormorant, contribute to the state’s rich avian diversity. Their roles in ecosystems range from scavenging to seed dispersal, and their presence often reflects the health of their habitats. While facing threats such as habitat loss and urbanization, these birds benefit from conservation efforts and citizen science initiatives. By recognizing the importance of these birds and actively participating in their conservation, Texans can ensure the preservation of these iconic species and the ecosystems they inhabit throughout the state.