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27 Black Birds in Kentucky

black birds in kentucky
Red-winged Blackbird from Henderson, Kentucky: Photo by Sunil Thirkannad

Introduction

Kentucky is home to a diverse array of avian species, including several striking black birds that add elegance and intrigue to the state’s landscapes. Join us on a journey to discover and learn about some of the fascinating black birds that call Kentucky home.

American Black Duck (Anas rubripes)

  • Features: The American Black Duck is a medium-sized dabbling duck with predominantly dark plumage. Males and females are similar in appearance, with mottled blackish-brown bodies, a pale grayish face, and a distinctive purplish-black speculum bordered by white.
  • Behavior: American Black Ducks are typically found in freshwater wetlands, marshes, and coastal habitats, where they forage for aquatic plants, seeds, and invertebrates by dabbling and upending in shallow water. They are often seen in small flocks or pairs, especially during the breeding season.
  • Locations: During migration and wintering periods, American Black Ducks can be found in various wetland habitats across Kentucky, including lakes, ponds, rivers, and estuaries.
  • Fun Fact: Despite their name, American Black Ducks often hybridize with Mallards, resulting in individuals with intermediate plumage characteristics.

Ring-Necked Duck (Aythya collaris)

  • Features: The Ring-Necked Duck is a small to medium-sized diving duck with a striking black head, neck, and breast, highlighted by a distinctive white ring around its bill. Males have a glossy purplish-black head, while females have a brownish head with a fainter ring.
  • Behavior: Ring-Necked Ducks are skilled divers, using their powerful legs and feet to propel themselves underwater in search of aquatic plants, seeds, and invertebrates. They are often found in small to medium-sized flocks, especially during migration and wintering periods.
  • Locations: Ring-Necked Ducks can be found in a variety of aquatic habitats in Kentucky, including lakes, ponds, marshes, and flooded fields.
  • Fun Fact: Despite their striking appearance, Ring-Necked Ducks are often overlooked due to their secretive behavior and preference for remote wetland habitats.

Greater Scaup (Aythya marila)

  • Features: The Greater Scaup is a medium-sized diving duck with a dark head and neck, white sides, and a black breast. Males have a glossy greenish-black head, while females have a brownish head with a white patch around the base of the bill. In flight, they display white patches on the wings.
  • Behavior: Greater Scaups are strong divers, using their powerful legs and feet to propel themselves underwater in search of aquatic vegetation, mollusks, and invertebrates. They often feed in large flocks in open water, diving repeatedly to forage.
  • Locations: Greater Scaups breed in the northern boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, migrating through Kentucky during the winter months. They can be found on large lakes, reservoirs, and coastal areas, where they feed and rest during migration.
  • Fun Fact: During courtship displays, male Greater Scaups perform elaborate courtship displays, including head bobbing, wing flapping, and vocalizations to attract females.

Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis)

  • Features: The Lesser Scaup is similar in appearance to the Greater Scaup but slightly smaller in size. Males have a dark head with a purplish gloss, while females have a brownish head with a white ring around the base of the bill. In flight, they display a white wing stripe.
  • Behavior: Lesser Scaups are agile divers, often diving to depths of up to 15 feet to forage for aquatic plants, seeds, and invertebrates. They form large flocks, particularly during migration, where they can be seen feeding in open water habitats.
  • Locations: Lesser Scaups breed in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, migrating through Kentucky during the winter months. They can be found on lakes, ponds, rivers, and coastal areas, where they feed and rest during migration.
  • Fun Fact: Lesser Scaups are known for their synchronized diving behavior, where entire flocks will dive simultaneously in response to perceived threats or disturbances, such as the approach of a predator.

White-Winged Scoter (Melanitta fusca)

  • Features: The White-Winged Scoter is a large sea duck with predominantly black plumage and distinctive white patches on its wings. Males have glossy black heads with a prominent white patch behind the eye, while females have more subdued plumage with less contrast.
  • Behavior: White-Winged Scoters are strong divers, capable of diving to considerable depths in search of mollusks, crustaceans, and fish. They are typically found in coastal waters, where they form large flocks during migration and wintering periods.
  • Locations: While White-Winged Scoters are primarily coastal birds, they can occasionally be found on large inland lakes and reservoirs in Kentucky during migration and winter.
  • Fun Fact: The White-Winged Scoter is known for its distinctive whistling call, which can often be heard echoing over the waves in coastal habitats.

Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)

  • Features: The Wild Turkey is a large, ground-dwelling bird with predominantly black plumage and iridescent bronze, green, and coppery tones. Males have a prominent fleshy wattle, or “beard,” on their chest, which they use to attract mates during the breeding season.
  • Behavior: Wild Turkeys are highly adaptable birds, inhabiting a variety of forested habitats, including woodlands, forests, and scrublands. They are omnivorous, feeding on a wide range of plant matter, seeds, fruits, insects, and small vertebrates.
  • Locations: Wild Turkeys are common throughout Kentucky, where they can be found in both rural and suburban areas with suitable habitat.
  • Fun Fact: The Wild Turkey is one of the largest game birds in North America and is a popular target for hunters during the fall hunting season.

Pied-Billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

  • Features: The Pied-Billed Grebe is a small, stocky waterbird with dark brown plumage and a distinctive black ring around its stout bill. During the breeding season, adults develop a black “chin strap” that contrasts with their whitish throat and cheeks.
  • Behavior: Pied-Billed Grebes are excellent swimmers and divers, using their lobed toes to propel themselves underwater in search of fish, amphibians, and invertebrates. They are often seen floating low in the water with only their heads and necks exposed.
  • Locations: Pied-Billed Grebes can be found in a variety of freshwater habitats in Kentucky, including lakes, ponds, marshes, and slow-moving rivers.
  • Fun Fact: Pied-Billed Grebes are known for their unusual courtship displays, which involve elaborate head-shaking and “weed-dance” rituals performed by pairs.

Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica)

  • Features: The Chimney Swift is a small, fast-flying bird with dark brown plumage and long, narrow wings. Its slender body and cigar-shaped silhouette make it easily recognizable in flight.
  • Behavior: Chimney Swifts are aerial foragers, capturing insects on the wing with their wide, gaping mouths. They are often seen darting and swooping over open areas, including parks, rivers, and urban areas.
  • Locations: Chimney Swifts are common summer residents throughout Kentucky, where they nest and roost in chimneys, hollow trees, and other vertical structures.
  • Fun Fact: Chimney Swifts are remarkable flyers, capable of flying continuously for long periods without perching. They even sleep on the wing during migration!

American Coot (Fulica americana)

  • Features: The American Coot is a medium-sized waterbird with dark gray plumage, a distinctive white bill, and bright red eyes. Despite its duck-like appearance, it is actually a member of the rail family.
  • Behavior: American Coots are highly adaptable birds, foraging on a variety of aquatic plants, seeds, and invertebrates in freshwater lakes, ponds, marshes, and reservoirs. They are often seen swimming and diving with ducks and other waterfowl.
  • Locations: American Coots are common residents throughout Kentucky, where they can be found in both natural and man-made wetlands.
  • Fun Fact: American Coots have large, lobed feet that are well-adapted for swimming and diving but make walking on land awkward. Instead, they prefer to push themselves along the water’s edge with a series of rapid foot movements.

Double-Crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)

  • Features: The Double-Crested Cormorant is a large, fish-eating bird with dark plumage, a long neck, and a distinctive hooked bill. Adults have a small double crest of black feathers on their heads during the breeding season.
  • Behavior: Double-Crested Cormorants are skilled divers, using their webbed feet to propel themselves underwater in pursuit of fish, crustaceans, and other aquatic prey. They are often seen perched on rocks, logs, and other structures near water, drying their wings in the sun.
  • Locations: Double-Crested Cormorants can be found in a variety of aquatic habitats in Kentucky, including lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and coastal marshes.
  • Fun Fact: Double-Crested Cormorants are known for their habit of “wing-spreading,” where they hold their wings outstretched and perpendicular to their bodies to dry them after diving.

Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)

  • Features: The Black Vulture is a medium-sized bird with black plumage and a distinctive featherless, wrinkled head. In flight, it displays silver-gray wingtips and a short, square tail. Its sharp, hooked beak is adapted for tearing into carrion.
  • Behavior: Black Vultures are highly social birds often seen in large groups, especially around carrion. They rely on soaring flight to cover vast distances in search of food, using their keen eyesight and sense of smell to locate carcasses.
  • Locations: Black Vultures are widespread in Kentucky, inhabiting a variety of habitats, including forests, grasslands, and urban areas. They are commonly found near roadsides, landfills, and open fields where they scavenge for food.
  • Fun Fact: Black Vultures have a unique adaptation known as “urohidrosis,” which involves defecating on their legs to cool off on hot days. This behavior helps regulate their body temperature and prevent overheating.

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

  • Features: The Turkey Vulture is slightly larger than the Black Vulture with dark brown plumage and a red, featherless head. In flight, it holds its wings in a V-shape and rocks from side to side. Its keen sense of smell allows it to detect carrion from great distances.
  • Behavior: Turkey Vultures are solitary feeders and are often seen soaring high in the sky, searching for food. They rely on thermal air currents to stay aloft for hours at a time. Unlike Black Vultures, they locate carrion primarily through their sense of smell.
  • Locations: Turkey Vultures are found throughout Kentucky, inhabiting a wide range of habitats, including forests, grasslands, and rural areas. They are commonly seen along highways, where they feed on roadkill.
  • Fun Fact: Turkey Vultures have an excellent sense of smell, which is rare among birds. They can detect the scent of carrion from up to a mile away, allowing them to locate food sources efficiently.

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

  • Features: The Pileated Woodpecker is a large, striking woodpecker with predominantly black plumage, a prominent red crest, and white stripes on its face and neck. Males have a red stripe on their cheeks, while females have a black stripe.
  • Behavior: Pileated Woodpeckers are powerful excavators, using their chisel-like bills to chip away at dead and decaying wood in search of insects, larvae, and sap. They are often heard drumming loudly on trees to establish territory and attract mates.
  • Locations: Pileated Woodpeckers can be found in mature forests and wooded habitats throughout Kentucky, where they nest in tree cavities and forage on a variety of tree species.
  • Fun Fact: Pileated Woodpeckers are one of the largest woodpecker species in North America and are sometimes referred to as “logcocks” due to their preference for dead and fallen trees.

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

  • Features: The Peregrine Falcon is a sleek, powerful raptor with bluish-gray upperparts, a barred breast, and distinctive dark “sideburns” on its face. It has long, pointed wings and a narrow tail, which enable it to reach incredible speeds in flight.
  • Behavior: Peregrine Falcons are formidable hunters, preying primarily on birds that they catch in mid-air after dramatic high-speed pursuits. They are often seen perched on tall buildings, cliffs, and other high vantage points, where they scan for potential prey.
  • Locations: Peregrine Falcons can be found in urban areas, coastal cliffs, and mountainous regions throughout Kentucky, where they nest on ledges and cliffs.
  • Fun Fact: Peregrine Falcons are the fastest animals on the planet, reaching speeds of over 240 miles per hour during their hunting dives, or “stoops.”

Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

  • Features: The Eastern Phoebe is a small, drab flycatcher with dark brownish-gray upperparts, a pale grayish-white throat and breast, and a noticeable white eye-ring. It has a habit of constantly wagging its tail up and down.
  • Behavior: Eastern Phoebes are adept flycatchers, perching on branches, fences, and other prominent objects where they wait for flying insects to pass by. They are often seen sallying out from their perches to catch insects in mid-air before returning to the same spot.
  • Locations: Eastern Phoebes can be found in a variety of habitats throughout Kentucky, including woodlands, parks, gardens, and suburban areas.
  • Fun Fact: Eastern Phoebes are one of the earliest migratory songbirds to return to their breeding grounds in the spring, often arriving before the last frost.

Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus)

  • Features: The Eastern Kingbird is a medium-sized flycatcher with predominantly black plumage, a white breast, and a distinctive white band on its tail. It has a small, hooked bill and a bold, upright posture.
  • Behavior: Eastern Kingbirds are aggressive defenders of their territory, often chasing away larger birds, including hawks and crows, that venture too close to their nesting sites. They are skilled aerial hunters, catching flying insects in mid-air with acrobatic maneuvers.
  • Locations: Eastern Kingbirds can be found in open habitats throughout Kentucky, including fields, meadows, pastures, and along forest edges.
  • Fun Fact: Eastern Kingbirds are known for their “crown displays,” where they raise their head feathers to form a conspicuous crest during aggressive encounters with other birds.

American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)

  • Features: The American Crow is a large, all-black bird with a sturdy bill, rounded wings, and a distinctive cawing call. It has a glossy sheen to its plumage, especially in bright sunlight.
  • Behavior: American Crows are highly intelligent and social birds, often forming large, noisy flocks, especially during the non-breeding season. They are opportunistic feeders, scavenging for a wide range of food, including insects, seeds, fruit, carrion, and human food scraps.
  • Locations: American Crows can be found in a variety of habitats throughout Kentucky, including forests, urban areas, agricultural fields, and along waterways.
  • Fun Fact: American Crows are known for their complex vocalizations, including a variety of calls, caws, and rattles, which they use to communicate with each other and coordinate group activities.

Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus)

  • Features: The Fish Crow is a small, all-black bird with a distinctive nasal call. It closely resembles the American Crow but is slightly smaller in size. Its wings are shorter and broader, and its voice is higher-pitched compared to the American Crow.
  • Behavior: Fish Crows are highly adaptable and can be found in a variety of habitats, including coastal areas, wetlands, and urban environments. They are opportunistic feeders, consuming a wide range of food items, including fish, invertebrates, carrion, and human food scraps.
  • Locations: Fish Crows are year-round residents in the southeastern United States, including parts of Kentucky. They can be found near water bodies, such as rivers, lakes, and coastal marshes, where they forage for food and nest in trees or shrubs.
  • Fun Fact: Fish Crows are known for their intelligence and resourcefulness. They have been observed using tools to extract food from hard-to-reach places and are capable of solving complex problems to obtain food.

Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

  • Features: The Common Starling is a medium-sized bird with iridescent black plumage and speckled white spots in winter. During breeding season, its plumage takes on a glossy purple and green sheen. It has a short, straight bill and a long, slender body.
  • Behavior: Common Starlings are highly social birds, forming large flocks outside of the breeding season. They are skilled vocal mimics, imitating the calls of other bird species and even human-made sounds. They feed on insects, fruits, and seeds, often foraging in open grassy areas.
  • Locations: Common Starlings are non-native birds introduced to North America from Europe. They can be found in urban and suburban areas throughout Kentucky, where they inhabit parks, lawns, agricultural fields, and city streets.
  • Fun Fact: The introduction of Common Starlings to North America has had significant impacts on native bird species and agricultural practices. Their large flocks can cause damage to crops and compete with native birds for food and nesting sites.

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

  • Features: The Dark-eyed Junco is a small, sparrow-sized bird with a slate-gray body and a white belly. It has a pinkish bill and pinkish legs. Depending on the subspecies, it may have a dark hood, white outer tail feathers, or other variations in plumage.
  • Behavior: Dark-eyed Juncos are ground-foraging birds often seen scratching for seeds and insects under shrubs and trees. They are migratory birds, breeding in northern forests and spending the winter months in more southern regions, including Kentucky.
  • Locations: Dark-eyed Juncos breed in coniferous and mixed forests across Canada and the northern United States, migrating southward to spend the winter in Kentucky and other parts of the southeastern United States.
  • Fun Fact: Dark-eyed Juncos exhibit significant geographic variation in plumage coloration and patterns, with different subspecies adapted to various habitats and climates across their range.

Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)

  • Features: The Bobolink is a small, blackbird-like bird with striking black and white plumage. Breeding males have a black back and head with a white rump and underparts. In winter, both males and females have more subdued brownish plumage.
  • Behavior: Bobolinks are migratory birds known for their long-distance migrations between their breeding grounds in North America and their wintering grounds in South America. They are often found in grasslands, meadows, and agricultural fields, where they forage for seeds and insects.
  • Locations: Bobolinks breed in grasslands and hayfields across Canada and the northern United States, migrating through Kentucky during the spring and fall. They can be found in open habitats, including pastures, prairies, and agricultural fields.
  • Fun Fact: Bobolinks are one of the few North American bird species that undergo a complete molt twice a year, changing their plumage from breeding to non-breeding and vice versa.

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

  • Features: The Red-winged Blackbird is a medium-sized blackbird with glossy black plumage and distinctive red and yellow shoulder patches on males. Females are streaked brown with a paler throat and belly. They have a conical bill adapted for cracking seeds and insects.
  • Behavior: Red-winged Blackbirds are highly territorial during the breeding season, with males defending nesting territories and displaying their bright shoulder patches to attract mates. They are often found in wetlands, marshes, and grasslands, where they forage for insects and seeds.
  • Locations: Red-winged Blackbirds breed throughout North America, including Kentucky, where they inhabit a variety of wetland and marsh habitats. They are year-round residents in many parts of the United States, while others migrate south for the winter.
  • Fun Fact: Red-winged Blackbirds are known for their distinctive call, a loud “conk-la-ree” sung by males to establish territory and attract mates during the breeding season.

Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)

  • Features: The Brown-headed Cowbird is a small, stocky blackbird with a distinctive brown head and neck on males and dull gray-brown plumage on females. They have a thick, conical bill adapted for cracking seeds and foraging for insects.
  • Behavior: Brown-headed Cowbirds are brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other bird species and relying on the host species to raise their young. This behavior allows them to forgo building their own nests and devote more energy to foraging.
  • Locations: Brown-headed Cowbirds are common throughout North America, including Kentucky, where they inhabit a variety of habitats, including grasslands, open woodlands, and agricultural areas. They are often found in association with livestock, hence their name.
  • Fun Fact: Brown-headed Cowbirds are considered a threat to many songbird species due to their brood parasitism behavior. Host species may raise cowbird chicks at the expense of their own offspring, leading to population declines in some bird species.

Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus)

  • Features: The Rusty Blackbird is a medium-sized blackbird with glossy black plumage and rusty brown edges on its feathers, particularly noticeable in breeding males. Females and non-breeding individuals have duller plumage with less distinct rusty edges.
  • Behavior: Rusty Blackbirds are typically found in wetland habitats, including marshes, swamps, and wooded streams. They forage for aquatic invertebrates, seeds, and berries, often probing in mud and shallow water for food.
  • Locations: Rusty Blackbirds breed in boreal forests across Canada and the northern United States, migrating through Kentucky during the winter months. They are often associated with wetland habitats, where they form flocks with other blackbird species.
  • Fun Fact: Rusty Blackbirds are experiencing significant population declines across their range, likely due to habitat loss, pollution, and other environmental threats. Conservation efforts are underway to protect their breeding and wintering habitats and reverse population declines.

Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)

  • Features: The Common Grackle is a large blackbird with iridescent purple and green plumage that appears black at a distance. Males are slightly larger and more iridescent than females. They have a long, keel-shaped tail and a stout bill.
  • Behavior: Common Grackles are social birds often found foraging in large flocks in open habitats, including fields, wetlands, and urban areas. They are opportunistic feeders, consuming insects, grains, fruits, and small vertebrates. During the breeding season, males perform elaborate courtship displays to attract females.
  • Locations: Common Grackles are common throughout North America, including Kentucky, where they inhabit a variety of habitats. They are often found near water sources, where they forage for food and nest in trees or shrubs.
  • Fun Fact: Common Grackles are known for their distinctive vocalizations, including a variety of calls and songs, which can vary regionally. They are considered pests in some areas due to their habit of raiding agricultural crops and bird feeders.

Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia)

  • Features: The Black-and-white Warbler is a small, boldly patterned warbler with black and white stripes on its head, back, and wings. It has a distinctive black eye stripe and white eyebrow. Its long, slender bill is adapted for probing bark for insects.
  • Behavior: Black-and-white Warblers forage for insects by creeping along tree trunks and branches, probing bark and foliage for prey. They are often found in mature forests with dense understory vegetation, where they glean insects from tree trunks and branches.
  • Locations: Black-and-white Warblers breed in deciduous and mixed forests across eastern North America, including Kentucky. During migration, they can be found in a variety of wooded habitats, including parks, gardens, and forest edges.
  • Fun Fact: Black-and-white Warblers are the only North American warbler species that regularly forage by creeping along tree trunks and branches, similar to nuthatches and creepers.

Blackpoll Warbler (Setophaga striata)

  • Features: The Blackpoll Warbler is a small songbird with black and white plumage and a distinctive black cap on males. Females and non-breeding individuals have duller plumage with less contrast. They have thin, pointed bills adapted for probing for insects.
  • Behavior: Blackpoll Warblers are long-distance migrants, breeding in boreal forests across Canada and Alaska and migrating through Kentucky during the fall migration. They forage for insects by gleaning foliage and branches in the forest canopy.
  • Locations: Blackpoll Warblers are primarily found in boreal forests during the breeding season, where they nest in coniferous trees. During migration, they can be found in a variety of wooded habitats, including parks, gardens, and forest edges.
  • Fun Fact: Blackpoll Warblers undertake one of the longest non-stop migrations of any songbird, flying over 1,800 miles non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean from northeastern North America to South America. They refuel and rest in coastal habitats before continuing their journey south.

Threats and Conservation

While black birds in Kentucky are resilient and adaptable, they face various threats to their populations and habitats. Habitat loss and fragmentation due to urbanization, agriculture, and industrial development are significant concerns, particularly for species like the American Crow and Eastern Kingbird, which rely on diverse habitats for nesting, foraging, and roosting.

Additionally, pollution, pesticides, and climate change pose additional challenges to black bird populations. Contaminants in waterways can affect the health of species like the Double-crested Cormorant, while pesticides can reduce insect populations vital to the diet of birds such as the Eastern Phoebe.

Climate change is altering habitats and migration patterns, affecting the availability of food and nesting sites for many species. Warmer temperatures may also lead to increased competition for resources among bird species, further impacting their populations.

Conservation efforts aimed at protecting and restoring key habitats are crucial for safeguarding black bird species in Kentucky. Preserving wetlands, forests, and grasslands provides essential breeding, nesting, and foraging areas for these birds. Implementing sustainable agricultural practices and reducing pollution can help mitigate the negative impacts of human activities on bird populations.

Citizen Science Opportunities

Kentucky birders can contribute to the conservation of black bird species through citizen science initiatives:

1. eBird: Birdwatchers can report their sightings and contribute valuable data to eBird, helping scientists track bird populations, migration patterns, and habitat use over time.

2. Nest Box Monitoring: Participating in nest box monitoring programs for species like the Eastern Bluebird and Red-headed Woodpecker can provide valuable information on breeding success and population trends.

3. Habitat Restoration: Volunteering for habitat restoration projects, such as planting native vegetation or removing invasive species, helps create and maintain suitable habitats for black birds and other wildlife.

4. Community Science Projects: Joining community science projects focused on bird monitoring, such as Christmas Bird Counts or Breeding Bird Surveys, allows birders to contribute data that informs conservation efforts at local and regional levels.

By engaging in citizen science and supporting conservation initiatives, bird enthusiasts can play a vital role in protecting the diverse array of black bird species that call Kentucky home.

Conclusion

Kentucky’s diverse habitats provide a haven for a wide range of black bird species, each with its own unique features, behaviors, and adaptations. From the secretive marsh-dwelling American Black Duck to the acrobatic aerial hunters like the Peregrine Falcon, these birds enrich our natural landscapes and inspire awe and wonder in birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts alike.

By understanding and appreciating the importance of these birds and their habitats, we can work together to ensure their conservation for future generations to enjoy. So, grab your binoculars and field guide, and embark on your own birding adventure to discover the beauty of black birds in Kentucky!