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17 Big Black Birds in California

big black birds in california
Sooty Shearwater in Monterey, California: Photo by Matt Felperin

Introduction 

California is home to a diverse array of bird species, including many large black birds that can be seen along the coast, in wetlands, forests, and elsewhere throughout the state. In this blog post, we’ll highlight some of the most notable big black birds that birders should watch for in California.

Big Black Birds in California

Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata

  • Features: The surf scoter is a stocky diving duck with entirely black plumage. The male has distinctive white patches on the forehead and nape. The female is dark brown all over. This species has a multi-colored bill pattern with orange, yellow, white and black.
  • Locations: Surf scoters winter along the coast of California. They are seen offshore and in bays and estuaries.
  • Fun Fact: The surf scoter breeds in boreal forests and tundra of Alaska and Canada. It makes one of the longest migration routes of any North American bird. 

White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi)

  • Features: The white-winged scoter is a stocky diving duck with black plumage. It has white secondary feathers that are visible in flight. This species has an orange and black knob at the base of its bill. The male’s black plumage is slightly iridescent. 
  • Locations: White-winged scoters winter along the California coast.
  • Fun Fact: Males make a whistling call during courtship displays. This species nests in wetland habitats across northern North America.

Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo

  • Features: The wild turkey is a large, long-legged bird with plumage that ranges from dark brown to black. Males have red, white and blue colors on their bare heads. 
  • Locations: Wild turkeys are found in woodlands, chaparral and other habitats across California. They are now common after reintroduction efforts. 
  • Fun Fact: Female wild turkeys nest on the ground and lay up to 12 eggs that hatch after 28 days of incubation. Poults can fly short distances 1-2 weeks after hatching.

Sooty Grouse (Dendragapus fuliginosus)

  • Features: The sooty grouse is a chicken-like forest bird with gray plumage and yellow air sacs visible on the neck. The male has yellow eyebrows and a purplish throat sac used in displays.
  • Locations: Sooty grouse are found in coniferous forests in the Sierra Nevada mountains. 
  • Fun Fact: The male performs spectacular mating displays, fanning its tail and making popping sounds. 

Pomarine Jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus)

  • Features: The pomarine jaeger is a large, dark gull-like seabird. It has blackish plumage with white flashes visible under the wings in flight. It has two long, pointed central tail feathers that stream behind it. 
  • Locations: Pomarine jaegers are seen offshore during spring and fall migrations. 
  • Fun Fact: This species feeds on fish, other birds and eggs by chasing them and forcing them to drop their food. It breeds in Arctic regions.

Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus

  • Features: The parasitic jaeger is a dark gull-like seabird with pointed tail feathers that stream behind it in flight. The dark phase is all brown, while the light phase has white underparts.
  • Locations: Parasitic jaegers are pelagic, seen off the California coast during migrations. 
  • Fun Fact: This jaeger got its name for its habit of harassing other birds to force them to drop food that the jaeger then eats. 

Ashy Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma homochroa)

  • Features: The ashy storm-petrel is a small grayish-brown seabird with a distinct odor and a prominent white patch on the underwings. 
  • Locations: Ashy storm-petrels are seen feeding over deep waters off the California coast. They nest in colonies on offshore islands.
  • Fun Fact: Nesting colonies are located by the smell and appearance of oil slicks from the birds preening themselves.

Black Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma melania)

  • Features: The black storm-petrel is a small sooty-black seabird with a square tail and swift flight that hugs the waves. 
  • Locations: Black storm-petrels are pelagic off the California coast, where they breed on islands offshore.
  • Fun Fact: This species nests in rock crevices and burrows. They are nocturnal at the nesting colonies.

Sooty Shearwater (Ardenna grisea

  • Features: The sooty shearwater is a medium-large seabird with dark gray-brown plumage and long, narrow wings.
  • Locations: Sooty shearwaters are abundant offshore in California waters. They are often seen in large feeding flocks.
  • Fun Fact: This species makes incredible trans-Pacific migrations annually from its New Zealand breeding grounds. 

Brandt’s Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus

  • Features: Brandt’s cormorant has shiny black plumage with a turquoise throat pouch. It has a small black crested head and a hooked bill. 
  • Locations: Brandt’s cormorants are found along the California coast, where they nest on offshore islands.
  • Fun Fact: This is a swift flier that dives from the surface to catch small fish. It has a unique upright pose when perched. 

Pelagic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus)

  • Features: The pelagic cormorant is a medium-sized cormorant with blackish plumage. It is smaller and slimmer than the double-crested cormorant.
  • Locations: Pelagic cormorants occur along coastal areas of California. They nest on cliffs and offshore rocks. 
  • Fun Fact: This species swims low in the water and dives for small fish. It is often seen perched with its wings spread to dry.

Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)

  • Features: The double-crested cormorant is a large black waterbird with a hooked bill and bright orange facial skin. It has a distinctive double crest of feathers when breeding.
  • Locations: Double-crested cormorants are found along the California coast and inland waterways. They nest colonially. 
  • Fun Fact: This species dives from the surface to catch fish underwater. It is often seen perching with its wings spread to dry.

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura

  • Features: The turkey vulture is a large soaring bird with dark brown plumage and a featherless red head. In flight, it holds its wings in a V-shape.
  • Locations: Turkey vultures are common and widespread across California. They soar over open areas scavenging carrion.  
  • Fun Fact: Turkey vultures follow the scent of ethane and butane gases produced by decaying carcasses to find food.

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

  • Features: The pileated woodpecker is a crow-sized woodpecker with mostly black plumage and a bright red crest on its head. It is the largest woodpecker in North America.
  • Locations: Pileated woodpeckers are found in mature forests with large trees across California. They drum loudly and excavate large, rectangular nest holes in dead trees.
  • Fun Fact: Pileated woodpeckers feed heavily on carpenter ants and the larvae of wood-boring beetles which they excavate from dead and dying trees.

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

  • Features: The peregrine falcon is a large, crow-sized falcon with dark blue-gray plumage and barred underparts. It has long, pointed wings and can dive at incredible speeds.
  • Locations: Peregrine falcons nest on tall cliffs and buildings and hunt near wetlands and along the coast. 
  • Fun Fact: The peregrine is the fastest animal on Earth, clocked diving at over 200 mph to catch bird prey in mid-air.

American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos

  • Features: The American crow has all black plumage and a large, stout bill. It has a square tail and distinctive wing beats in flight. Crows soar and make loud cawing vocalizations.
  • Locations: American crows are common and widespread across California in both urban and wild areas. 
  • Fun Fact: Crows are omnivorous and highly intelligent. They use tools to access hard-to-reach food sources.

Northern Raven (Corvus corax)

  • Features: The northern raven is a massive, all black corvid with a thick neck and shaggy throat feathers. It has a wedge-shaped tail and makes deep croaking vocalizations.
  • Locations: Ravens occur across California in diverse habitats from desert to forest. 
  • Fun Fact: Ravens are highly intelligent and social. They play and work cooperatively to access food sources.

Threats and Conservation

Many of California’s black birds face threats like habitat loss, pollution, climate change, and more. Organizations work to protect important bird habitats and mitigate threats to populations. Citizens can help by keeping cats indoors, reducing use of pesticides and herbicides, and advocating for continued protections.

Citizen Science and eBird

Citizen science programs like eBird allow birders to contribute sightings and help scientists track bird populations. Recording sightings on eBird is easy and helps build knowledge about bird distribution, migration, breeding success, and more. 

Conclusion

California provides essential habitat for a remarkable diversity of coastal, wetland, forest, and widespread black birds. Birders can see many special species by observing pelagic birds, wetland birds, forest birds like grouse and woodpeckers, and adaptable birds like crows and ravens. Watching and recording sightings of these birds provides enjoyment while also contributing to science and conservation.