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25 Striking Birds with Red Eyes in North America

red-eyed birds in north america
Cinnamon Teal from Salt Lake, Utah: Photo by Matthew Pendleton

Introduction

Birds with red eyes stand out, from the sinister glare of vultures to the ruby stare of aquatic birds. These species tend to have red eyes for functional reasons, as the color aids their feeding and behavior. In this article, we’ll highlight some of North America’s most striking red-eyed birds, top places to find them, and how we can aid their conservation.

Cooper’s Hawk – Accipiter cooperii

  • Features: Cooper’s hawk is a medium-sized raptor with a long tail and rounded wings. Adults display a steely blue-gray color on their backs and wings, with warm reddish barring on the chest and belly. The tail, a distinctive feature, has thick dark bands. The eyes of mature birds are deep red. Juveniles are brown above with streaky underparts and yellow eyes.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Cooper’s hawks are found throughout North America, from southern Canada to northern Mexico. They inhabit a range of environments, from deep forests to suburban and urban areas. Their presence in cities has grown over the years, adapting to urban environments where they often hunt birds at bird feeders.
  • Fun Fact: Often referred to as the “chicken hawk,” the Cooper’s hawk is a skillful bird hunter, adept at fast and agile flight through dense woodlands to surprise its prey. They have a distinctive flight pattern of a few rapid wing beats followed by a short glide. 

Sharp-shinned Hawk – Accipiter striatus

  • Features: The sharp-shinned hawk is the smallest hawk in North America, sporting a slender body and short wings. Adults have a blue-gray back and wings, with a barred, rust-colored chest and fine, thin legs. Their eyes are dark red. Juveniles display a brown, streaked appearance with yellow eyes. The hawk’s tail is long with narrow white bands, and its flight is characterized by several quick wingbeats followed by a glide.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Sharp-shinned hawks are widespread across North America. They inhabit dense forests and woodlands but are often seen in backyards and suburban areas, especially during migration, as they prey primarily on small birds. They breed in deep forests and migrate south in winter, with some populations being year-round residents in parts of the U.S.
  • Fun Fact: Due to their small size and agile flight, sharp-shinned hawks are adept bird hunters, often surprising their prey by darting out from concealed perches.

White-tailed Kite – Elanus leucurus

  • Features: The white-tailed kite is a medium-sized raptor with a graceful appearance. Its plumage is predominantly white, with gray shoulders, back, and wings. The bird’s head is a soft gray, and its red eyes are particularly striking. As its name suggests, the tail is white, which becomes prominent during its hovering flight, a behavior this kite is renowned for.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: White-tailed kites can be found in open grasslands, marshes, farmlands, and savannas across the southern U.S., particularly in parts of California, Texas, and Florida. They tend to avoid densely wooded or urban areas and are typically seen over open habitats where they hunt.
  • Fun Fact: White-tailed kites are famous for their hunting technique, which involves hovering over open fields with their body facing into the wind, scanning the ground below for prey, primarily rodents. Once they spot a potential meal, they will drop swiftly to grab it. This hovering behavior has earned them the nickname “hovering kite.” 

American Coot – Fulica americana

  • Features: The American coot is a distinct bird, often mistaken for a duck. It sports a slate-gray body, a white bill, and a distinguishing red eye. Their legs, which are not webbed like a duck’s but instead have lobed toes, are a yellowish-green color. While they are often seen swimming, they are more closely related to rails and cranes.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: American coots are found throughout North America, frequenting ponds, lakes, marshes, and reservoirs. They are particularly common in the wetlands of the central and western parts of the continent. In winter, they can often be found in coastal bays and inlets.
  • Fun Fact: The American coot’s “feet” are a unique feature. While not webbed like ducks, the lobes on their toes help propel them in the water. 

Sandhill Crane – Grus canadensis

  • Features: Sandhill cranes are tall, elegant birds with a graceful posture. They have a gray body, often stained with a rusty hue from iron-rich mud, and a white cheek contrasting with their bright red forehead and striking red-orange eyes. Their long neck and legs further enhance their statuesque appearance.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Sandhill cranes are widely distributed across North America. Their breeding habitats are wet grasslands, marshes, and meadows in the northern parts of the continent, including Canada and the northern U.S. In winter, they migrate to the southern U.S. and Mexico. One of the most famous gathering spots is Nebraska’s Platte River, where hundreds of thousands congregate during migration.
  • Fun Fact: They are one of the oldest living bird species, with fossil evidence dating back several million years. 

Black-crowned Night-Heron – Nycticorax nycticorax

  • Features: The black-crowned night-heron is a stocky wading bird with a unique appearance. As its name suggests, it boasts a glossy black crown and back, contrasting with its pale gray wings and white underparts. Its eyes are a striking red, and during the breeding season, it sports two long white plumes extending from the back of its head. The legs of adults are yellow but turn pinkish-red during the breeding season.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Black-crowned night-herons can be found across a wide swath of North America, from coastal regions to freshwater habitats like marshes, lakes, and rivers. While they can be found in many areas during the breeding season, they mainly migrate to the warmer coastal areas of the U.S., Central America, and the Caribbean for the winter.
  • Fun Fact: Unlike many other herons that are active during the day, the black-crowned night-heron, true to its name, is most active during the evening and night. 

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron – Nyctanassa violacea

  • Features: The yellow-crowned night-heron is characterized by its slate-gray body and contrasting black head with a white cheek stripe and a distinctive yellow crown. This medium-sized heron has long, sturdy legs, which are often bright orange-yellow in adults. Its bright red eyes add to its striking appearance.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Yellow-crowned night-herons are predominantly found along the coastal regions, especially in saltwater habitats like mangroves, tidal marshes, and beach edges. They can also be observed in freshwater wetlands. While they breed in many areas of the southeastern U.S., they retreat to warmer coastal regions during the winter.
  • Fun Fact: Yellow-crowned night-herons, as their name suggests, are mainly nocturnal birds, becoming active at dusk to hunt. They have a particular fondness for crustaceans, especially crabs and crayfish, using their strong bills to crack open their prey’s exoskeleton. 

Black-necked (Eared) Grebe – Podiceps nigricollis

  • Features: The black-necked grebe is a small waterbird with a slender neck and distinctive breeding plumage. During the breeding season, this grebe showcases a black head and neck, bright red eyes, and golden-yellow tufts (or “ears”) of feathers behind its eyes. Its non-breeding plumage is more subdued, with a white neck and face and a darker crown and nape.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Black-necked grebes are most commonly found in the western regions of North America. They prefer shallow freshwater lakes and ponds, especially those with abundant aquatic vegetation. During migration, they can form large flocks on larger lakes and the coast. In winter, they are often found on saltwater bays and the ocean.
  • Fun Fact: These birds undergo a fascinating post-breeding molt, during which they lose all their flight feathers at once, rendering them flightless for a brief period. This molt is energy-intensive, and during this time, they focus solely on feeding and can double their body weight. 

Clark’s Grebe – Aechmophorus clarkii

  • Features: Clark’s grebe is a large and sleek waterbird with striking plumage. It has a bright white face and neck, contrasting sharply with its black crown and hindneck. The vibrant red eyes are set in the white part of its face, distinguishing it from the similar Western Grebe. Its long, slender neck and sharp, slightly upturned bill add to its elegant appearance.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Clark’s grebes can primarily be found in the western parts of North America. They prefer freshwater lakes and reservoirs, especially larger bodies of water with emergent vegetation. In winter, they often migrate to coastal waters or open lakes in the southern parts of their range.
  • Fun Fact: One of the most captivating behaviors of the Clark’s grebe is its courtship display, known as “rushing.” During this ritual, pairs can be seen sprinting across the water side by side with their bodies out of the water and necks extended, creating a mesmerizing water dance. 

Western Grebe – Aechmophorus occidentalis

  • Features: The western grebe is a large, elongated waterbird with striking contrasts in its plumage. It boasts a deep black head and neck, which sharply contrast with its white body and undersides. The red eyes are distinctively set against the black part of its face, differentiating it from the similar Clark’s Grebe. Its long, slender neck and pointed, straight bill give it an air of elegance.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Western grebes are predominantly found in the western regions of North America. They favor freshwater lakes, reservoirs, and marshes, particularly those with ample aquatic vegetation. During the winter months, they often move to coastal estuaries and bays.
  • Fun Fact: Until 1985, western and Clark’s grebes were thought to be a single species. However, research revealed that, even when sharing the same lakes, the two species infrequently interbreed. Additionally, they produce distinct calls and exhibit significant DNA variations.

Horned Grebe – Podiceps auritus

  • Features: The horned grebe is a medium-sized waterbird with a notably compact body. During the breeding season, this grebe displays a deep rufous neck, jet-black head, and a unique golden-yellow “horn” of feathers that fan out behind its bright red eyes. In its non-breeding plumage, the bird is more muted, featuring a white face with a dark cap and a pale gray body.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Horned grebes breed in freshwater wetlands and lakes in the northern parts of North America, especially in Canada and the northern U.S. During the winter months, they migrate to coastal waters, larger lakes, and estuaries in the southern parts of the U.S. and along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
  • Fun Fact: The horned grebe frequently consumes its feathers to the extent that its stomach often has a compacted mass of them. This might serve as a sieve or potentially retain fish bones for improved digestion. Interestingly, parents also offer feathers to their offspring to initiate this feathered plug at a young age.

Canvasback – Aythya valisineria

  • Features: The canvasback is a large diving duck with a unique profile. Males exhibit a chestnut-red head and neck, contrasting with their black breast, white back, and black tail. Females have a pale brown head and body. Both sexes are characterized by their sloping forehead and long, black bill, which differentiates them from other diving ducks.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Canvasbacks breed in the northern prairie potholes and parklands, favoring freshwater marshes with dense vegetation. During winter, they can be found across the southern and coastal regions of the U.S., with many migrating to the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf Coast. They prefer shallow lakes, ponds, and estuaries where they feed primarily on aquatic vegetation.
  • Fun Fact: The bird’s scientific name, “valisineria,” is derived from Vallisneria americana, or wild celery, which is a favorite food for these ducks. Their diet, rich in this aquatic plant, imparts a distinctive flavor to their meat, making them a sought-after game bird in certain regions. 

Cinnamon Teal – Anas cyanoptera

  • Features: The cinnamon teal is a striking, medium-sized dabbling duck. Males are particularly eye-catching with their deep cinnamon-red plumage, dark brown back, and bright red eyes. Females are mottled brown, similar to other female teals but can be distinguished by their warmer brown coloring. Both sexes have blue patches on their upper wings, which are especially visible in flight.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Cinnamon teals are commonly found in the western parts of North America. They breed in freshwater wetlands, marshes, and ponds of the Great Basin and the western U.S. During winter, many migrate to the coastal marshes and wetlands of California, Mexico, and Central America.
  • Fun Fact: Unlike many other dabbling ducks, they often forage away from water, plucking seeds and catching insects on mudflats and in fields.

Wood Duck – Aix sponsa

  • Features: The wood duck is undoubtedly one of the most stunningly colorful waterfowl in North America. Males exhibit an iridescent green and purple crested head, with striking white patterns and bold, red eyes. Their chest is richly colored with burgundy, and it’s bordered by white. The bird’s sides are golden-yellow, transitioning to blue on its wings with white patterns. Females, while more subdued, are also beautiful with their warm brown plumage, teardrop-shaped white eye ring, and a distinctive crest at the back of the head.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Wood ducks inhabit freshwater ponds, lakes, swamps, and slow-moving rivers across much of the eastern and western parts of North America. They have a preference for water bodies with surrounding trees or wooded areas, given their propensity to nest in tree cavities.
  • Fun Fact: Unlike most waterfowl, wood ducks have strong claws, allowing them to perch in trees. They’re one of the few duck species equipped to nest in trees, and they often choose cavities quite high off the ground. 

Killdeer – Charadrius vociferus

  • Features: The killdeer is a medium-sized plover with a distinct appearance. It showcases two black bands across its white chest, a brownish-tan back, and a bright orange rump that’s visible in flight. Its long legs are a characteristic orange-tinted color, and it has a prominent white stripe above its red-bordered eye, which extends around the back of the neck.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Killdeers can be found throughout North America, from open fields, pastures, and parking lots to mudflats, shores, and riverbanks. They are one of the most widespread of all North American shorebirds, although they’re often found far from water.
  • Fun Fact: The Killdeer is best known for its dramatic “broken-wing” act. When a potential predator approaches its nest, the Killdeer will feign an injury, dragging its wing on the ground and vocalizing loudly to draw attention to itself and away from its eggs or chicks. Once it’s successfully lured the predator away, the bird will miraculously “recover” and fly off. However, this act isn’t effective against large animals like cows or horses, which might inadvertently step on the eggs. To deter such large hoofed creatures, the killdeer adopts a distinct behavior: it puffs up, raises its tail over its head, and dashes towards the animal in an effort to redirect its course.

Common Loon – Gavia immer

  • Features: The common loon is a large diving bird, known for its striking appearance and haunting calls. During the breeding season, adults exhibit a black-and-white checkered back, a glossy black head, white underparts, and vibrant red eyes. In winter, they don a more subdued grayish-brown plumage. Their sharp bill is used to catch fish, their primary diet.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Common loons breed on quiet, freshwater lakes and ponds across Canada and the northern U.S. In winter, they migrate to coastal waters, larger lakes, and even open oceans along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
  • Fun Fact: The bird’s name “loon” is derived from the Scandinavian word “lom,” meaning “lame” or “clumsy,” referencing its awkwardness on land. However, in the water, they are agile divers, able to chase down and capture fish with ease. Their legs, positioned far back on their bodies, make them efficient swimmers but poor walkers. 

Red-breasted Merganser – Mergus serrator

  • Features: The red-breasted merganser is a sleek diving duck known for its distinctive, punk-like crest and slender, serrated bill ideal for catching fish. Males boast a bold black and white pattern on their back, a dark iridescent green head, a white neck ring, and a ruddy breast. Females are more subdued in coloration, with a rusty-brown head and gray body, but they share the same eye-catching crest. Both sexes have red eyes.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Red-breasted mergansers are often found in freshwater lakes, rivers, and coastal saltwater habitats. They breed mainly in the northern parts of North America, across Canada, and the northern U.S. During the winter months, they migrate south to coastal regions, the Great Lakes, and larger inland lakes and rivers.
  • Fun Fact: Among ducks, red-breasted mergansers are one of the fastest fliers. When migrating, they can reach speeds up to 100 mph. 

Black Rail – Laterallus jamaicensis

  • Features: The black rail is one of the smallest and most secretive of North American rails. It boasts a dark slate-gray plumage overall, with white speckling on the upperparts and a reddish nape. Its eyes are bright red, adding a pop of color to its otherwise cryptic appearance. Due to their elusive behavior and tiny size, they are often heard more than seen.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Black rails are found in salt marshes, freshwater wetlands, and sedge meadows. They are mainly located along the Atlantic coast, Gulf of Mexico, and in some parts of California. However, their populations are scattered and in decline due to habitat loss.
  • Fun Fact: For many years, ornithologists were aware of a unique bird call referred to as the “kicker call.” However, due to the elusive behavior of the birds, they were uncertain about the specific rail species responsible for it. It was later discovered that versions of this call emanate from Virginia, clapper, king, and black Rails. Both female and, at times, male birds produce the “kicker” call, though its exact purpose remains undetermined.

White-winged Dove – Zenaida asiatica

  • Features: The white-winged dove is a robust dove with a unique appearance. It displays a smooth gray-brown body and a distinctive white edge along its wings, which is particularly noticeable in flight. The red eyes are circled by bright blue, almost turquoise, eye rings, and they have a slight iridescence on the back of the neck.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: White-winged doves are primarily found in the southwestern U.S., Mexico, and parts of Central America. In the U.S., they inhabit areas of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California, often frequenting suburban areas, farmlands, open woodlands, and desert scrub.
  • Fun Fact: The white-winged dove has a unique diet compared to other doves. It often feeds on the fruits of the saguaro cactus, especially during the breeding season. This close relationship with the saguaro is so intertwined that the dove’s breeding cycle is often timed with the fruiting of these iconic desert plants. 

Spotted Towhee – Pipilo maculatus

  • Features: The spotted towhee is a striking, large sparrow with a mix of vivid and dark hues. It flaunts a deep black head, throat, and upperparts, punctuated with white spots on its wings and back. Its sides are a rich rufous, and its belly is white. Bright red eyes (in most of its range) add to its distinctive appearance.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Spotted towhees are predominantly found in the western regions of North America. Their preferred habitats include dry uplands, shrubby areas, open woods, and chaparral. They often spend time rummaging in leaf litter on the ground, so they’re commonly seen in forest undergrowth or thickets.
  • Fun Fact: The Spotted Towhee is known for its vigorous foraging technique called “double-scratching.” With both feet, they kick backward to uncover hidden food, creating a notable ruckus in the underbrush. 

Eastern Towhee – Pipilo erythrophthalmus

  • Features: The eastern towhee is a striking, large sparrow characterized by its bold, contrasting colors. Males display a glossy black head, throat, and upperparts, complemented by warm rufous sides and a white belly. Females have a similar pattern but are rich brown where the males are black. Both sexes have bright red eyes (in most of their range).
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Eastern towhees are found primarily in the eastern and southeastern parts of North America. They prefer areas with dense underbrush, such as forest edges, overgrown fields, and shrubby garden areas. Like their western counterparts, they often forage in leaf litter on the ground.
  • Fun Fact: The eastern towhee’s song is distinctive and has been described as sounding like “drink-your-tea!” 

Green-tailed Towhee – Pipilo chlorurus

  • Features: The green-tailed towhee, as its name suggests, boasts a bright olive-green tail and upperparts. It has a gray face and chest, contrasting with a white throat and belly. A distinctive rufous crown and a white eye ring, surrounding its red eye, accent its expressive face.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: This bird is primarily a resident of the western parts of North America. It prefers shrubby habitats, open woodlands, and sagebrush, especially in mountainous regions. During winter, they may descend to lower elevations and extend their range slightly eastward.
  • Fun Fact: Green-tailed towhees occasionally use porcupine hair to line the interior of their nesting bowl.

Red-eyed Vireo – Vireo olivaceus

  • Features: The red-eyed vireo is a small and sleek songbird with an olive-green back, a clean white belly, and a gray crown. Its most distinctive feature, from which its name is derived, is its fiery red eye, which stands out against its pale face framed by a dark eyeline and white eyebrow (or supercilium).
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Red-eyed vireos inhabit deciduous forests across eastern and northern North America. They are particularly fond of mature woodlands with a dense canopy, where they forage high in the treetops, often remaining concealed among the leaves.
  • Fun Fact: They are prolific singers, with individual birds known to sing over 20,000 songs in a single day!

Yellow-green Vireo – Vireo flavoviridis

  • Features: The yellow-green vireo is a modestly sized songbird displaying a predominantly greenish-yellow plumage, especially on its underparts. The bird’s upperparts are a more olive-green. A distinctive feature is its faint spectacles, formed by a pale ring around the red eyes connected to a pale lore. This vireo’s bill is stout, typical of the species in its genus.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: While their breeding grounds are mainly in Central America, yellow-green vireos are known to venture into the southernmost parts of Texas, particularly in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, during the breeding season. They prefer forest edges, second growth, and other wooded habitats.
  • Fun Fact: The species is a long-distance migrant, wintering in the Amazon Basin in South America. 

Phainopepla – Phainopepla nitens

  • Features: The phainopepla is a unique and sleek songbird, easily recognizable by its shiny black (in males) or gray (in females) plumage, crested head, and striking red eyes. Males, when seen in the right light, have an almost silky, iridescent sheen. The wings display white wing patches that become particularly noticeable during flight.
  • Where to Find Them in North America: Phainopeplas are primarily found in the deserts of the southwestern U.S., particularly in parts of California, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas. They inhabit desert washes, open woodlands, and chaparral, particularly favoring areas with an abundance of mistletoe, which is a primary food source.
  • Fun Fact: The phainopepla’s name is derived from the Greek word meaning “shining robe.”

Threats and Conservation

Wetland drainage, development, pollution, and disturbance threaten many red-eyed wetland species. Protecting wetlands, reducing chemicals, and stopping disturbances are key conservation actions. Preserving forests helps red-eyed ducks, doves, and vireos. Public education and engagement on reducing threats are also vital to protect fascinating red-eyed birds.

Conclusion

The variety of birds with red eyes enrich ecosystems from the Everglades to backyard feeders. These unique colors and behaviors make them stand out in the avian world. Focusing conservation efforts on protecting habitats and reducing threats can help maintain healthy populations of North America’s striking red-eyed birds.