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15 Stunning Birds with Red Beaks in North America

birds with red beaks
American Oystercatcher in Nassau, New York: Photo by Alicia Ambers

Introduction

Birds with red beaks stand out in the avian world. From tiny hummingbirds to massive pelicans, a rainbow of species has evolved red bills adapted to their lifestyles and habitats. In this article, we’ll highlight some of North America’s most recognizable red-beaked birds, top places to find them, and how we can help in their conservation.

Wood Duck – Aix sponsa

  • Features: The wood duck is considered one of the most stunningly colorful waterfowl in North America. The male flaunts a remarkable array of colors including a glossy green and purple head, red eyes, and a white fingered extension from its throat to its face. Their bodies feature vibrant patterns of bronze, tan, and black. Females are less colorful but equally beautiful with a white eye-ring, fine barring on their bodies, and a distinctive crest on their heads. And of course, don’t forget the male’s red beak.
  • Where to Find Them: Wood ducks are found across much of the eastern half of the United States, extending into parts of the west, primarily in wooded swamps, marshes, and riparian habitats where there’s a presence of slow-moving or standing water bodies. They are quite adept at nesting in tree holes, often using nest boxes provided by locals.
  • Fun Fact: Wood ducks have strong claws which allow them to perch in trees, a fairly unusual trait for ducks. 

Common Merganser – Mergus merganser

  • Features: The common merganser is a large, sleek diving duck characterized by its distinctive slender, hooked red beak with serrated edges to help grip fish prey. Adult males have a striking appearance with a dark green glossy head, white body, and black back. Females are noted for their rusty-cinnamon head and neck, white chin, and grayish body. Both genders have bright orange legs and feet.
  • Where to Find Them: These birds are generally found in rivers and lakes in the northern forests of North America, particularly in Canada and the northern United States. In wintertime, they migrate southward and can be found in larger rivers and lakes, often forming sizeable groups that can sometimes number in the hundreds.
  • Fun Fact: The common merganser is quite adapted to an aquatic lifestyle, with superb underwater vision and the ability to close their nostrils when diving, preventing water from entering their nasal cavities. 

Red-breasted Merganser – Mergus serrator

  • Features: The red-breasted merganser is a striking diving duck known for its slender, saw-toothed, red beak and distinctive crest of feathers at the back of the head, giving it a slightly punk rock appearance. The males are particularly vibrant with a dark green head, a white neck with a pronounced ring, and a russet-brown breast. Females, on the other hand, have a more subdued appearance with a rusty-brown head and greyish body, yet they share the same distinct crest and slender bill.
  • Where to Find Them: These birds can be found in a wide variety of aquatic habitats including freshwater lakes, rivers, and coastal estuaries across North America. In the breeding season, they prefer northern lakes and rivers with wooded surroundings. During the winter, they migrate to coastal waters, often forming sizable flocks with other sea ducks.
  • Fun Fact: Notably, they have been recorded to have the fastest flight speed among birds, being clocked at 100 mph during a British study that aimed to ring birds as a method of studying their habits.

American Oystercatcher – Haematopus palliatus

  • Features: American oystercatchers are large, striking shorebirds with a distinctive appearance. They boast bright orange-yellow eyes, framed by a ring of the same color, and a long, bright red-orange beak well-suited for prying open shellfish, which forms a large part of their diet. Their plumage is a sharp contrast of black and white: a black head and upper body transitioning smoothly into a white belly and underside.
  • Where to Find Them: These birds are usually found along the shorelines, saltmarshes, and mudflats of North America, primarily on the Atlantic coast, Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific coast of Baja California. They favor areas rich in shellfish, where they can be seen foraging along the tide lines for oysters, clams, and mussels.
  • Fun Fact: American oystercatchers have a keen sense of detecting quality shellfish. They are known to be quite selective, often choosing the healthiest and best-sized prey. Their strong bills are not only adept at opening shells but are also sensitive, allowing them to feel the muscle of the shellfish and sever it quickly, making their foraging expeditions highly efficient.

Black Oystercatcher – Haematopus bachmani

  • Features: The black oystercatcher is a distinctive shorebird, immediately recognizable by its all-black plumage, bright yellow eyes, and vibrant orange-red beak. Their legs are stout and pinkish in hue. They have a loud, piercing call that can often be heard as they communicate with each other along the rocky shores they inhabit.
  • Where to Find Them: You can find black oystercatchers along the rocky coastlines of the Pacific Ocean, from Alaska down to the coast of Baja California in Mexico. They prefer rocky shore habitats where tidal pools provide an abundant food source, including mollusks and other marine invertebrates. 
  • Fun Fact: Despite their name suggesting a preference for oysters, black oystercatchers primarily feast on mussels, limpets, and chitons. These birds have a fascinating foraging technique; they use their strong beaks to catch prey by either prying them off the rocks or finding small gaps in the shells to sever the muscles inside, making it easier to extract the meat. They have even been observed using small rocks as tools to crack open shells.

American White Ibis – Eudocimus albus

  • Features: The American white ibis is known for its striking all-white plumage, which contrasts sharply with its bright orange-red beak and legs. The tip of the bill is slightly curved downward, aiding them in foraging for food in wetlands. During the breeding season, their facial skin takes on a deep blue hue, adding another splash of color to their already vibrant appearance. 
  • Where to Find Them: White ibises are predominantly found in the southeastern United States, especially in Florida’s wetlands, but their range extends along the Gulf Coast and up the Atlantic coast to North Carolina. They are commonly seen in a variety of wetland habitats, including marshes, swamps, and even urban parks with suitable water bodies.
  • Fun Fact: White ibises have a tendency to forage in groups, and their feeding sessions are a communal affair. They use their long, curved beaks to probe the soft wetland soils for crustaceans and other invertebrates. 

Black Skimmer – Rynchops niger

  • Features: The black skimmer stands out with its stark black upperparts and white underparts, creating a striking contrast. One of the bird’s most distinguishing features is its unique red beak, which has a lower mandible that is much longer than the upper one. This peculiar adaptation assists them in their distinct method of foraging, where they skim the water’s surface with their open beak and snap it shut when they touch a fish.
  • Where to Find Them: Black skimmers are typically found along the coasts of the southern United States, preferring sandy or gravelly bars and shores. They are coastal birds, frequenting saltwater habitats, but can occasionally be found in freshwater areas as well. They nest in colonies, often with other seabirds, on sandy beaches, inlets, and islands.
  • Fun Fact: Their unique foraging style, skimming the water surface, is a rare feeding method among birds. This fascinating behavior is usually conducted during dawn or dusk when the waters are calm. The lower mandible is not only used to sense and catch fish but also has the ability to move independently of the upper mandible, allowing for rapid closure when prey is detected.

Laughing Gull – Leucophaeus atricilla

  • Features: The laughing gull is easily identifiable by its deep gray wings, white underparts, and a black head during the breeding season. In the non-breeding season, its head transitions to white with a black spot behind each eye. They possess a distinctive laugh-like call, which is the origin of their common name. The young birds are brown and mottled, gradually acquiring adult plumage over the course of three years.
  • Where to Find Them: These gulls are commonly found along the coastlines of the southeastern United States, extending southwards through the Caribbean and into parts of Central and South America. They favor coastal areas but can sometimes be spotted inland near lakes and rivers.
  • Fun Fact: The laughing gull has a very distinctive call that sounds similar to a high-pitched laugh, which is how it got its name. These gulls are highly social and often found in large groups, especially during the breeding season. In addition to their ‘laughing’ call, they communicate through a complex series of other vocalizations and body language, which play a vital role in their social interactions.

Purple Gallinule – Porphyrio martinica

  • Features: The purple gallinule is a striking bird with an iridescent body showcasing a blend of purple and blue hues, complemented by a green back. Its bold yellow legs, white undertail, and the prominent shield on its forehead, which is a bright blue, add to its vibrant appearance. It has a red eye and a light red beak tipped with a yellow end.
  • Where to Find Them: Purple gallinules are generally found in the wetlands of the southeastern United States, particularly in areas with a lot of aquatic vegetation. These habitats can include swamps, marshes, and ponds. During winter, they migrate to Central and South America.
  • Fun Fact: They are known for their adept walking skills on floating vegetation, thanks to their long toes which distribute their weight effectively, allowing them to walk on lily pads without sinking. This dexterity enables them to feed on a diverse diet including both aquatic plants and small animals.

Common Tern – Sterna hirundo

  • Features: The common tern is characterized by its sleek appearance with a predominantly white body, contrasted by a black cap on its head during the breeding season. Its wings are pale gray and it has a sharply pointed yellowish to orange-red beak, with a dark tip. The legs are red-orange as well. In flight, you can observe a distinguishable dark wedge on the outer wing.
  • Where to Find Them: Common terns have a widespread distribution and are found along coastlines, inshore waters, and inland lakes and rivers in many parts of the world. They prefer to nest in colonies on sandy or shingle beaches, and sometimes on gravel roofs or other artificial sites near water bodies.
  • Fun Fact: Common terns are remarkable long-distance migrants, with some individuals traveling from their northern breeding grounds to the southern hemisphere during the winter, covering distances up to 22,000 miles round trip. Their migratory patterns are so precise that they often return to the exact same nesting spot year after year. 

Caspian Tern – Hydroprogne caspia

  • Features: The Caspian tern is the largest of all tern species, boasting a heavy build with a primarily white body, contrasted by a black cap on its head during the breeding season. Its beak is large, robust, and bright red, giving it a distinctive appearance. In flight, it displays pale grey wings with dark primary feathers, and its tail is relatively short and slightly forked.
  • Where to Find Them: These birds have a widespread distribution, inhabiting various regions across the world. They prefer coastal areas but are also found inland near lakes and large rivers. In North America, you can find them along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, as well as around the Great Lakes and other large inland water bodies.
  • Fun Fact: They are known to live for more than 20 years, showcasing strong site fidelity, often returning to the same nesting areas each year.

Common Gallinule – Gallinula galeata

  • Features: The common gallinule is a medium-sized waterbird characterized by its slate-gray body and white undertail. Its distinctive features include a white streak along its flanks and a bright red facial shield topped with a yellow-tipped red beak. This bird has long legs with lobed toes which facilitate smooth swimming and walking on floating vegetation.
  • Where to Find Them: Common gallinules inhabit freshwater wetlands, like marshes and ponds, where they have access to dense vegetation for nesting and cover. These birds are found across many parts of North America, especially in the southeastern regions and around the Gulf of Mexico. They are year-round residents in warmer areas and migrate to lower latitudes during the winter.
  • Fun Fact: Despite being excellent swimmers, common gallinules are also agile on land and can often be seen walking on floating vegetation with remarkable balance, thanks to their long toes which help distribute their weight. 

Broad-Billed Hummingbird – Cynanthus latirostris

  • Features: The broad-billed hummingbird is a small, vibrant bird known for its striking appearance. Males are particularly dazzling with bright, iridescent green plumage on their upper parts and a deep blue throat, which contrast vividly with their white underparts. Their most notable feature is their broad, red beak with a black tip, which they use to feed on nectar from flowers. Females are less colorful, sporting green upper parts and a white belly, with a less pronounced red beak.
  • Where to Find Them: This hummingbird species mainly inhabits the southwestern regions of the United States, specifically in Arizona and New Mexico. They prefer riparian habitats within arid regions, where they can be found flitting amongst the vegetation in canyons and along streams. These birds migrate to central Mexico during the winter.
  • Fun Fact: The broad-billed hummingbird, like other hummingbirds, has the ability to hover in mid-air by rapidly flapping their wings, which can flap at an average rate of 50 times per second! 

Buff-bellied Hummingbird – Amazilia yucatanensis

  • Features: The buff-bellied hummingbird is a medium-sized hummingbird that sports an attractive blend of colors in its plumage. The upper parts of this bird are metallic olive green, blending seamlessly with its vibrant, iridescent throat and chest. As suggested by its name, it has a buff-colored belly which contrasts with its green upper parts. Its long, slightly decurved beak is red with a black tip, aiding it in accessing nectar from flowers.
  • Where to Find Them: Buff-bellied hummingbirds predominantly reside in the lowlands along the Gulf Coast of the United States, especially in southeast Texas, extending through the coastal regions of eastern Mexico to Belize. They prefer open woodlands, forest edges, gardens, and scrub areas where they can access a variety of flowering plants. During the colder seasons, they migrate to the Yucatán Peninsula.
  • Fun Fact: They have excellent memories that allow them to keep track of which flowers they’ve visited, ensuring that they maximize their nectar collection efficiency during their foraging trips. 

Black-bellied Whistling Duck – Dendrocygna autumnalis

  • Features: The black-bellied whistling duck is notable for its striking appearance, characterized by a rich chestnut body, a bold black belly, and a prominent red bill and legs. Its face has a white ring around the eye extending to the nape, which contrasts vividly with its dark plumage. Its long neck and upright stance give it a unique silhouette, distinguishing it from other duck species. Its strong wings enable it to be an excellent flier, with a distinctive, high-pitched whistling call during flight, giving it its common name.
  • Where to Find Them: These ducks are generally found in the southern parts of the United States, specifically in Texas, Arizona, and Louisiana, extending into Central and South America. They inhabit wetlands, lakes, and rivers where they can access shallow water for foraging. They are also commonly found in urban and suburban areas, adapting well to human-made bodies of water like golf course ponds or park lakes.
  • Fun Fact: They are known to perch on trees, a rather unusual habit for ducks, thanks to their long legs that facilitate roosting in branches. 

Threats and Conservation

Habitat destruction, chemical pollution impacting food chains, and climate change threatening prey species are some risks facing red-beaked birds. Protecting crucial wetlands and migration stopovers, reducing chemicals, and public education on reducing threats can help conserve these unique species.

Conclusion

North America’s spectacular red-beaked birds, from common northern cardinals to giant American white pelicans, greatly enrich our birdlife. Conserving the wetland habitats these species depend on and reducing human-caused threats will help ensure birds continue brightening our skies and waterways for generations.