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39 Black Birds in California

black birds in california
Tricolored Blackbird in Marin, California: Photo by Derek Lecy

Introduction

From sleek cormorants perching along the rocky coastline to acorn woodpeckers drilling nest holes in oak groves, there is a remarkable diversity of black birds in California. The state’s varied ecosystems from redwood forests to arid deserts attract these darkly colored avian gems that elegantly contribute to the abundant biodiversity. Read on to learn about some of the amazing black birds found across California.  

Black Birds in California

Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata)

  • Features: The surf scoter is a stocky seaduck with a very bulky body profile. The adult male has completely black plumage with white patches visible on the forehead and nape. The female has a subtly patterned brown and white plumage. Both sexes have a large multi-colored bill.
  • Locations: In California, surf scoters winter in large rafts on coastal bays and lakes. The species breeds in northern North America.
  • Fun Fact: Massive “scoter rafts” numbering over 100,000 birds can form along the California coast as surf scoters congregate in prime areas during winter.

White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi)

  • Features: The adult male white-winged scoter has entirely black body plumage except for the white patches on the wings which give the species its name. Females are brownish overall with a more faint white speculum. Both sexes have a stocky two-toned colored bill.
  • Locations: In California, white-winged scoters winter on coastal marine habitats. They are seen offshore and in bays and inlets.
  • Fun Fact: The male’s rather odd frog-like croaking call is made as part of courtship displays to females. The species forms large flocks that winter together along the coast.

Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)

  • Features: This large bird has metallic blackish feathers with bold brown barring throughout its plumage. The bare head and neck vary in color with mood and health. Males also have leg spurs and beard-like breast feathers.
  • Locations: Wild turkeys are found in forests, woodlands, and open areas across California. They were reintroduced after previous overhunting caused declines.
  • Fun Fact: Male wild turkeys perform elaborate strutting courtship displays where they puff out plumage, fan their tails, and emit gobbles.

Sooty Grouse (Dendragapus fuliginosus)

  • Features: A medium-sized bird with males black overall with yellow skin above the eye. Females are gray with finely barred underparts. Both sexes have a long squared off tail.
  • Locations: Sooty grouse occupy coniferous forests in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges where they blend into burned tree trunks. 
  • Fun Fact: Produce low-pitched hooting sounds by contracting special neck sacs. Their nest is a scrape on the ground.

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

  • Features: This small grebe has drab grayish-brown plumage with a thick chicken-like bill that has a pale band across the middle. The flattened head profile and short neck give it a chunky shape.
  • Locations: Pied-billed grebes inhabit ponds, lakes, marshes, and wetlands year-round across California. 
  • Fun Fact: A secretive bird, they can sink straight down into the water without making a ripple in order to disappear from view and escape potential threats.

Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis

  • Features: This grebe has a black cap that contrasts with bright red eyes and a golden buff-colored tuft behind the eye during breeding season. The neck is black on the front and rusty-cinnamon on the sides.
  • Locations: In California, black-necked grebes are found on lakes, reservoirs, and along the coast, primarily during nonbreeding months. They migrate south from interior breeding areas.
  • Fun Fact: A swift diver that swims low in the water. Sometimes seen running across the water’s surface during takeoff.

Vaux’s Swift (Chaetura vauxi)

  • Features: A small cigar-shaped bird with dark grayish-brown plumage and a slightly paler throat. It has long, narrow curved wings and tiny feet that can grip vertical surfaces. 
  • Locations: Vaux’s swifts breed in nest cavities in large hollow trees and chimneys across northern California. They migrate south to winter in Central America.
  • Fun Fact: An aerial insectivore, it catches flying insects exclusively while in continuous flight. Roosts communally in large hollow trees and chimneys.

White-throated Swift (Aeronautes saxatalis)

  • Features: This large swift has glossy black-brown plumage with a contrasting white throat and white patches under the wings. The wings are long, curved and pointed. The tail is slightly forked. 
  • Locations: Breeds on cliffs and canyons across California. Ranges widely when foraging over many habitats. Winters in Central America.
  • Fun Fact: Uses its large wings and aerodynamic body to fly rapidly and acrobatically over wide areas when feeding. It even drinks by skimming over water.

Black Oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani)

  • Features: This striking shorebird has a long, thick red-orange bill used for prying open shellfish. It has black plumage on the head, neck, back, and wings, with white on the breast and belly. The eyes are yellow-orange.
  • Locations: Found along coastal shorelines across California year-round where they feed on intertidal species. They nest on offshore islands and islets.  
  • Fun Fact: Their loud, whistling “wee-wee” calls carry over long distances along rocky shores and may help them remain in contact when out of sight. 

Pomarine Jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus)

  • Features: A large jaeger with dark sooty brown plumage, pale neck streaking, acutely pointed central tail feathers, and a thickset body shape. The bill has a hooked tip.
  • Locations: In California, pomarine jaegers pass by offshore during migrations and can be seen from coastal overlooks in fall. They breed in Arctic regions.
  • Fun Fact: Jaegers will relentlessly harass other birds over the ocean until they regurgitate food, which the jaeger then nimbly catches in mid-air.

Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus

  • Features: This jaeger has pointed wings and a streamlined appearance in flight. Plumage is dark brown with a cap and neck collar noticeably paler than the back. The central tail feathers are elongated. 
  • Locations: In California, parasitic jaegers occur over offshore waters during migrations. They breed in the Arctic region. 
  • Fun Fact: Like other jaegers, this species exhibits a kleptoparasitic strategy where it relentlessly chases seabirds to steal their food in dramatic aerial pursuits.

Common Murre (Uria aalge)

  • Features: A chunky seabird with black upperparts, white undersides, and a thin pointed bill. Breeding birds have white throat patches and bridled patterns on the head. Winter birds are plain gray and white. 
  • Locations: Large numbers breed on coastal islands and rocky sea stacks along the California coast. Also found widely offshore when not nesting.
  • Fun Fact: Dives from flight into the ocean in pursuit of schooling fish and other marine prey. Nests densely packed together on precarious cliff ledges.

Pigeon Guillemot (Cepphus columba)

  • Features: This alcid has a stocky profile with a short neck, rounded head, and medium-length pointed bill. Plumage is black with large white wing patches. Red feet and a red gular pouch. 
  • Locations: Found year-round along rocky coastlines across California. Nests in cavities on cliffs and bluffs. 
  • Fun Fact: Swims low in the water with its wings pulled in straight, giving it a unique profile compared to other alcids. Chicks have white down with black wing buds. 

Cassin’s Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus)

  • Features: A small black and gray auklet with a short gray bill and conspicuous white plumes above the eyes during breeding. Legs are pink with flat webbed feet used for swimming. 
  • Locations: Breeds in large numbers on the Channel Islands off southern California. Pelagic and seen from shore in winter.
  • Fun Fact: Specialized bills have thin plates used to strain small planktonic prey from the ocean. Nest deep in crevices laying a single large white egg.

Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata)

  • Features: A chunky seabird with black upperparts and white undersides. It has a large, thick red bill with a horn-like vertical protuberance. Legs are orange-pink. 
  • Locations: Breeds in large colonies on offshore islands along the California coast. Winters farther south into Mexico. 
  • Fun Fact: The unique rhinoceros-like bill is used to capture small fish, squid, and crustaceans. They are silent at breeding colonies unlike many other auklets.

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger)

  • Features: A small tern with black plumage on the head, wings, back and deeply forked tail. The underside is white. The bill is thin and black. In winter, black is replaced by white flecking. 
  • Locations: Found along the coast and inland wetlands across California during spring-fall. Winters along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of Mexico. 
  • Fun Fact: An aerial acrobat, the black tern flies with buoyant wingbeats while hovering and diving to snatch insects and small fish at the water’s surface.

Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica)

  • Features: In breeding plumage, the Pacific loon has a black head, checkerboard black-and-white back, and blackish-gray bill. The neck is purplish-black. In winter, the plumage is gray above and white below. 
  • Locations: Winters along the California coast, especially in protected bays and estuaries. Breeds on Arctic lakes.
  • Fun Fact: Swims low in the water and dives from the surface when swimming. On land, their legs set far back makes them awkward and prone to tipping forward.

Ashy Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma homochroa

  • Features: A small grayish-brown seabird with a blackish M-shaped marking across the wings and a forked tail. The bill is blackish and legs are pinkish with webbed feet.
  • Locations: Breeds colonially on offshore islands along the California coast. Pelagic in winter, seldom seen from shore. 
  • Fun Fact: Nests in rock crevices and burrows where it remains active only at night to avoid predators. It has a flickering, erratic flight low over the ocean surface.

Black Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma melania)

  • Features: A small sooty brown-black storm-petrel with a faint pale band on the upper wing and a slightly forked tail. The legs are pink with webbed feet and the bill is blackish.
  • Locations: Breeds on islands off southern California. Pelagic in winter but can be seen from shore when storm-blown. 
  • Fun Fact: Flies low over the ocean with quick, stiff wing beats and dangling legs. Like other storm-petrels, it is active only at night around breeding colonies.

Sooty Shearwater (Ardenna grisea

  • Features: A medium-large seabird with dark gray-brown plumage and a pale panel on the underside of primary wing feathers. The bill is gray with a dark tip. 
  • Locations: Common offshore in California waters during spring-fall. Breeds in New Zealand, Chile, and Australia.
  • Fun Fact: Makes one of the longest annual migrations of any bird, traveling up to 40,000 miles in a figure-eight pattern across the Pacific Ocean.

Brandt’s Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus

  • Features: A medium-large cormorant with glossy black plumage and a thin double-crested head. Bright blue throat pouch and eyes. Bill is yellowish.
  • Locations: Found along the California coast year-round. Nests colonially on cliffs and offshore rocks and islands. 
  • Fun Fact: An excellent diver, they pursue schooling fish underwater propelling with both feet. Often seen perching with wings outstretched. 

Pelagic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus)

  • Features: A medium-sized cormorant with satiny black plumage lacking any white patches. It has a slender bill and head crest. Facial skin and gular pouch are dull yellow. 
  • Locations: Found along the rocky California coastline. Nests on cliffs and rocky islands.
  • Fun Fact: Swims low in the water with its body submerged. Less coastal than the Brandt’s cormorant. Primarily eats small bottom-dwelling fish. 

Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus

  • Features: A large cormorant with glossy black feathers and a hooked bill. Has distinctive white patches on each side of its face during breeding season. 
  • Locations: Found near lakes, rivers, estuaries. Nests in trees and on the ground. 
  • Fun Fact: An expert swimmer and diver that propels itself underwater with its feet. Known for spreading its wings to dry after fishing.

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

  • Features: Large soaring bird with a featherless red head and dark brown plumage. Distinguished by its V-shaped wings in flight. 
  • Locations: Found in open country across North America. Roosts communally in trees or on cliffs.
  • Fun Fact: An expert scavenger with an incredible sense of smell to find carrion. Suns its wings to stay warm and kill bacteria.

Williamson’s Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus)

  • Features: A medium-sized woodpecker with black back, yellow belly, and white rump. Male has red throat, female has white throat.
  • Locations: Found in coniferous forests of western North America. Nest in tree cavities, especially aspens. 
  • Fun Fact: Drills neat rows of sap wells in tree bark and feeds on the flowing sap as well as insects. Migrates south in winter.

Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus)

  • Features: A clown-faced woodpecker with black and white barred plumage. Males have a red cap. Stores acorns in granary trees.
  • Locations: Found in oak woodlands of western North America. Cavity nests in dead trees.
  • Fun Fact: Lives in cooperative family groups that share work duties and store up to 50,000 acorns in their granaries.

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

  • Features: A crow-sized woodpecker with a flashy red crest. Males have red moustache stripes. Known for its loud rattling call.
  • Locations: Found in mature forests across North America. Excavates nest cavities in dead trees. 
  • Fun Fact: Uses its chisel-like bill to hammer rectangular holes in trees to find carpenter ants. Leaves signature rectangular excavations.

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus

  • Features: A large powerful falcon with blue-black upperparts and barred underparts. Distinguished by its pointed wings and dark “moustache” mark.
  • Locations: Found near cliffs and urban centres across North America. Nests on tall buildings and bridges. 
  • Fun Fact: The fastest bird, reaching over 200 mph in its hunting stoop. Was restored after facing pesticide threats.

Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans)

  • Features: A flycatcher with dark gray-brown plumage and a slight crest. Often pumps its tail downward. 
  • Locations: Found near water in the west. Breeds on cliffs, bridges, and under eaves.
  • Fun Fact: A remarkably tame bird that lives around humans. Returns to the same wintering and nesting sites each year. Eats insects caught in flight.

Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri

  • Features: A dark blue and black jay with a prominent crest. Has black heads and necks with blue bodies. 
  • Locations: Found in coniferous forests of western North America. Nests high in tall trees.
  • Fun Fact: Intelligent and noisy birds that are highly curious. Forms family flocks that work together to find food. 

American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)

  • Features: An all-black, medium-sized songbird with a stout bill. Highly gregarious and very vocal.
  • Locations: Found everywhere from forests to fields to cities across North America. Nests high in trees. 
  • Fun Fact: Tool-using bird known for problem-solving skills. Roosts communally in winter in large noisy flocks.

Northern Raven (Corvus corax)

  • Features: A large, all-black corvid with a stout bill and shaggy throat feathers. Has a deep, croaking call. 
  • Locations: Found across North America in forests, deserts, and tundra. Nests on cliffs, trees, and structures.
  • Fun Fact: A highly intelligent bird known for problem-solving skills. Mate for life and work together to raise young. 

Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris

  • Features: A short, square-shaped songbird with dark feathers covered in iridescent spots. Yellow beak in breeding season.
  • Locations: An introduced species found near human habitation across North America. Nests in cavities and crevices.
  • Fun Fact: Very social and lively birds that form huge flocks called “murmurations” in winter. Excellent vocal mimics.

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

  • Features: A gray and white sparrow with a rounded head and pink bill. Males have darker heads and breasts. 
  • Locations: Found in backyards and open woods across North America. Nests on the ground hidden in vegetation. 
  • Fun Fact: Often the first winter bird to arrive at northerly bird feeders. Flicks its tail frequently while hopping on the ground.

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

  • Features: Male is striking black and yellow with a black body and yellow head and breast. Female is drab brown. 
  • Locations: Found in wetlands across western North America. Nests in marsh reeds and grasses.
  • Fun Fact: Nests in dense colonies. Male is very territorial and defends its nesting area aggressively. 

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

  • Features: A common marsh bird with a red shoulder patch bordered by yellow. Males are all black with the red patch. Females are streaked brown.
  • Locations: Found in wetlands across North America. Nests in cattails and reeds. 
  • Fun Fact: Very territorial. Males defend nesting areas with song and display flights. Forms huge flocks in winter.

Tricolored Blackbird (Agelaius tricolor)

  • Features: Male is black with bright white median coverts forming a white stripe on the wing. Female is dark brown.
  • Locations: Found in wetlands in the Pacific Coast states. Nests colonially in marsh vegetation. 
  • Fun Fact: Has declined dramatically in recent decades and is listed as a threatened species in California. An endemic species found nowhere else.

Brewer’s Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus)

  • Features: Male is all black with yellow eyes and a glossy sheen. Female is gray-brown with dark streaks.
  • Locations: Found in open areas across North America. Nests low in bushes and on the ground.
  • Fun Fact: Gregarious outside of breeding season. Forages on the ground for insects and grains. Male displays by puffing up and bowing.

Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus)

  • Features: A large, long-tailed blackbird with glossy iridescent feathers. Male has yellow eyes, female has brown. 
  • Locations: Found in open areas near water across much of North America. Nests high in trees.
  • Fun Fact: An opportunistic feeder that eats anything from berries to small animals. Known for raiding fast food trash cans.

Threats and Conservation

Many of California’s native black bird species face threats such as habitat loss, climate change, and competition from invasive species. Birds like the tri-colored blackbird have experienced dramatic population declines due to destruction of wetland habitats. Conservation efforts are underway to protect and restore critical habitats and raise awareness about these vulnerable species. Citizen scientists can help by reporting black bird sightings to eBird, a global database used by researchers and conservationists to track bird populations and distributions. Documenting where these declining species are found gives scientists crucial data to inform conservation strategies.

Citizen Science

Citizen science and birdwatching go hand-in-hand. Anyone can contribute to scientific understanding of birds by reporting sightings to eBird and learning about the fascinating species around them. With just a pair of binoculars, a field guide, and the eBird mobile app, citizen scientists are gaining new perspectives on bird behavior, movement, diversity. eBird’s vast datasets have become an invaluable resource for ornithologists. With more eyes in the field recording data, our knowledge expands exponentially. We can all do our part to conserve black birds in California simply by paying closer attention to the remarkable avifauna in our own backyards.

Conclusion

California is home to an impressive diversity of spectacular black colored birds. From tiny sapsuckers to giant ravens, these species exhibit astonishing adaptations to their environments. However, many black bird populations now face ever-growing threats. Conserving their habitats and better understanding their needs through citizen science initiatives will be key to ensuring these charismatic species continue thriving in California and beyond. With greater awareness and participation from the public, we can unravel more mysteries about black birds and the habitats they depend on.