Skip to Content

11 Blue Birds in California

blue birds in california
Mountain Bluebird in Orange, California: Photo by Rhonda Howard

Introduction to Blue Birds in California

From the deep indigo of western bluebirds to the striking blue plumage of the belted kingfisher, vivid blue-hued birds are a treasured part of California’s diverse avifauna. The Golden State’s varied habitats from chaparral and deserts to redwood forests attract a stunning diversity of blue feathered species. In this article, we’ll explore some of California’s most brilliant blue birds, top spots to observe them, and how we can aid in their conservation.

Western Bluebird – Sialia mexicana

  • Features: Western bluebirds are a feast for the eyes with their vibrant plumage that features a rich blue hue on their head and wings, complemented by a rust or brick-red chest and a grayish belly. The males tend to have brighter colors compared to the females, which possess a more subdued, yet equally beautiful, coloration with grayish tones and softer blues.
  • Where to Find Them: In California, western bluebirds are quite commonly found in various open habitats including forests, woodlands, and even suburban areas with adequate green spaces. They prefer regions with a mixture of trees and open grounds where they can easily spot insects, their primary food source. During the winter months, they often form flocks and can be seen in valley foothills and lowlands.
  • Fun Fact: The oldest recorded western bluebird, a male, was at minimum 8 years and 8 months old when discovered in California in 2008, having been banded within the same state in 2001.

Mountain Bluebird – Sialia currucoides

  • Features: Males boast a brilliant blue coat, which is particularly vibrant during the breeding season, while females exhibit a more subdued gray-blue appearance with hints of bright blue on the wings and tail. This difference in color makes it relatively easy to distinguish between the sexes. These birds have a sleek body and a slender bill, characteristics that enhance their graceful flight and agile maneuvers while in the air.
  • Where to Find Them: In California, these birds are primarily spotted, unsurprisingly, in the mountainous regions where they prefer open habitats with sparse vegetation, such as meadows, alpine areas, and rangelands. You can often find them in the Eastern Sierra and other high-altitude locations where they favor nesting in tree cavities or utilizing nest boxes provided by humans to raise their young. 
  • Fun Fact: A female mountain bluebird prioritizes optimal nesting locations over the allure of potential mates. Her selection of a partner is determined exclusively by the position and excellence of the nesting space he can provide, rather than his capabilities as a singer, his prowess in flying, or his physical appearance.

California Scrub-Jay – Aphelocoma californica

  • Features: The California scrub-jay is a medium-sized bird known for its striking appearance, showcasing a vibrant blue hue on its wings and tail that contrasts sharply against its grayish-brown body and head. These intelligent birds have a distinct white throat accented by a blue necklace, and a prominent bill which is stout and slightly curved. 
  • Where to Find Them: Named for the state they are primarily found in, these birds are seen particularly in areas with oak woodlands, chaparral, and residential gardens. They are quite adaptable and have a preference for habitats with a blend of trees and open spaces, which allows them to forage efficiently for a variety of foods, including insects, seeds, and fruits. Their territory spreads across various elevations, from coastal regions to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
  • Fun Fact: California scrub-jays are known for their remarkable intelligence and problem-solving abilities. One of their most impressive behaviors is their capacity to remember where they have stored food caches across vast areas, often recovering them many months later. 

Island Scrub-Jay – Aphelocoma insularis

  • Features: The island scrub-jay is a notable bird species, primarily recognized for its vibrant blue plumage, which is slightly darker compared to its mainland relative, the California scrub-jay. It possesses a robust body structure with a stout, slightly hooked bill, ideal for a diet consisting of a variety of seeds and invertebrates. It also features a pronounced supercilium, which gives it an expressive facial appearance.
  • Where to Find Them: These birds are endemic to Santa Cruz Island, one of the Channel Islands of California. Their habitat consists of a range of environments found on the island, including oak woodlands, pine forests, and chaparral, which offer abundant food resources and nesting sites.
  • Fun Fact: The Island Scrub-Jay is an interesting case of insular endemism, as it is the only bird species in the continental United States restricted to a single island. Their isolated existence on Santa Cruz Island has allowed them to evolve distinct characteristics, making them larger and showcasing more vibrant plumage compared to their mainland counterparts. This limited range, however, also makes their population vulnerable to habitat changes and natural disasters, emphasizing the need for conservation efforts to protect this unique species.

Steller’s Jay – Cyanocitta stelleri

  • Features: Recognizable for its striking appearance, the Steller’s jay sports a vibrant blue body contrasted with a dark blackish-brown head, creating a bold and distinctive look. Their pronounced crest, which can be raised or lowered depending on their mood or social interactions, gives them a somewhat regal appearance. 
  • Where to Find Them: The Steller’s jay is primarily found in the forested areas of the western North America, spanning from Alaska to Central America. They have a preference for coniferous woods but are also found in mixed woodland environments. In California, you can spot them in the mountainous regions where they frequent both low and high altitudes, adapting well to varying environments including parks and suburban areas.
  • Fun Fact: Named after the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, the Steller’s jay is known for its intelligence and complex social behaviors. They possess a remarkable ability to mimic the calls of other bird species, and even mechanical noises, which they use to their advantage to deceive predators or other birds. 

Belted Kingfisher – Megaceryle alcyon

  • Features: The belted kingfisher is a medium-sized bird known for its striking appearance. Males are generally adorned with a blue-gray upper body and a white belly, separated by a distinct blue band. Females, on the other hand, feature an additional rusty-brown band across their belly. Both sexes possess a large head with a pronounced shaggy crest, and a long, robust bill perfect for catching prey. Their powerful wings allow for agile and rapid flight, often seen zipping over water bodies with energetic flight patterns.
  • Where to Find Them: These birds are commonly found across much of North America, including California. They predominantly inhabit areas close to bodies of water such as rivers, lakes, and coastal areas, as their diet primarily consists of fish. They can often be seen perched on branches, posts, or other vantage points near water, keenly observing for potential prey before diving in with remarkable precision to catch a meal.
  • Fun Fact: Fossils of belted kingfishers dating back to the Pleistocene epoch, up to 600,000 years ago, have been found in regions including Florida, Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas. The most ancient fossil identified within the kingfisher genus, estimated to be 2 million years old, was discovered in Alachua County, Florida.

Lazuli Bunting – Passerina amoena

  • Features: The lazuli bunting is a small songbird. Males during the breeding season boast a brilliant blue head contrasted by a white belly and chestnut-colored wing bars. Females and juveniles, though more subdued, exhibit a warm, tawny hue with a hint of blue on their tails and rumps. Their bright colors make them a splendid sight, particularly when spotted under the sun where their plumage shines most vividly.
  • Where to Find Them: These birds are found predominantly in the western regions of North America. They prefer shrubby habitats, open woodlands, and riparian areas, where they nest in thickets and bushes. During the breeding season, you can often find them in California’s mountainous regions, migrating to the southwestern United States and central Mexico for the winter.
  • Fun Fact: Similar to the distinct voice that each individual possesses, every male lazuli bunting vocalizes a unique series of notes. Young males, in their first year, usually reach the breeding areas without having developed a personal song. However, not long after their arrival, they craft their own melody by reshuffling syllables and fusing snippets of songs from multiple males. Once they’ve composed it, this distinctive song remains with them for a lifetime.

Blue Grosbeak – Passerina caerulea

  • Features: The blue grosbeak is renowned for its lovely plumage. Male blue grosbeaks are striking, boasting a deep, rich blue coat complemented by rusty wing bars. Females and juveniles are brown with a slightly bluish hue and also sport the distinctive rusty wing bars. This bird is large-billed, which it uses to crack open seeds with ease. Its song is melodious, comprising a series of rich warbles.
  • Where to Find Them: In California, blue grosbeaks are generally found in the southern and central parts of the state, making their homes in areas with thick shrubbery and vegetation. They prefer open woodlands, fields, and areas near streams and rivers where they have access to both water and a plethora of insects and seeds to eat. During the winter, these birds migrate south, so spotting them in California is more likely during the warmer months.
  • Fun Fact: These birds have a diverse diet that adjusts according to the season. They primarily feed on insects during the summer, helping control pest populations in their habitats. As the season changes, they shift their diet to include more seeds and grains, showcasing their adaptable feeding habits. 

Great Blue Heron – Ardea herodias

  • Features: The great blue heron is a lovely bird that stands tall with a stature reaching up to 4.5 feet. It has a blue-gray plumage, a long, sinuous neck, and a sharp, pointed bill that it uses adeptly to catch prey. The bird has a white head with a black stripe above its eye, extending to black plumes on the back of its head, adding to its commanding presence. Its long legs, excellent for wading, are a distinctive greenish-yellow.
  • Where to Find Them: In California, these elegant birds can be found throughout the state near a variety of water bodies including freshwater marshes, riverbanks, lakes, and coastal regions. They prefer habitats that are rich in fish, their primary food source, and can often be seen standing silently along the water’s edge or wading through shallow waters in search of their next meal.
  • Fun Fact: Great blues are known for their solitary hunting habits. They are incredibly patient predators, often standing motionless for long periods as they wait for fish to come within striking distance. When they do strike, it’s with lightning speed, snaring their prey with their sharp, powerful beaks. 

Tree Swallow – Tachycineta bicolor

  • Features: Tree swallows are small birds with iridescent blue-green upperparts that shimmer in the sunlight. Their underparts are pristine white, creating a stark yet harmonious contrast with their vibrant upper body. They have streamlined bodies and long, pointed wings that enable swift and agile flight. Their tiny, rounded heads and short, pointed bills add to their sleek appearance.
  • Where to Find Them: In California, tree swallows are commonly seen around open habitats near water bodies such as wetlands, marshes, and coastal areas. They have a preference for nesting in tree cavities or nest boxes, and their presence is often a delightful addition to many parks and natural reserves in the state. During the breeding season, they can often be spotted in areas with abundant flying insects, their primary food source.
  • Fun Fact: They are among the few North American swallows that have a varied diet, which includes a substantial amount of plant matter in the non-breeding season. This adaptability allows them to migrate earlier compared to other swallow species.

Barn Swallow – Hirundo rustica

  • Features: The barn swallow is a striking bird with a deeply forked tail and pointed wings, which add an elegant dynamism to its flight. Their upper parts are covered in a glossy steel blue plumage that brilliantly contrasts with their cinnamon-colored throat and forehead. The underparts are a lighter, buff or pale orange color, adding to their vibrant appearance. These agile fliers have a streamlined body, built for speed and maneuverability, which comes in handy when chasing insects, their primary food source.
  • Where to Find Them: In California, you can spot barn wwallows frequenting open habitats, including fields, farms, and marshes where they can have unobstructed flight paths for catching insects. They have a preference for building their nests on human-made structures, like barns, bridges, and buildings, usually close to water bodies. During the breeding season, they can be found throughout the state, showcasing their aerial acrobatics near their mud nest colonies.
  • Fun Fact: According to folklore, the Barn Swallow acquired its split tail as a result of stealing fire from the deities to gift to humans. In retaliation, a furious god cast a flaming torch at the swallow, scorching off its central tail feathers.

Threats and Conservation of Blue Birds in California

Habitat loss, climate change reducing prey, and competition with invasive birds imperil many of California’s blue feathered species. Providing nest boxes, protecting oak woodlands, chaparral, and other key habitats, and being mindful of pesticide use are actions that can secure their future. With thoughtful conservation, these avian jewels will continue brightening California’s diverse ecosystems. 

Conclusion

The stunning variety of blue birds found across California, from western bluebirds gracing oak savannas to belted kingfishers diving for fish along the coast, are an important part of the state’s natural heritage. Protecting habitats, reducing threats, and appreciating their beauty and behaviors will help ensure these special species thrive for generations to come.