Conserve Prince William
Prince William Conservation Alliance is a nonprofit watershed organization working to protect natural resources and healthy communities through stewardship, recreation and education

Discover Northern Virginia Nature: Birds

PR - Permanent Resident
WR - Winter Resident
SR - Summer Resident
T - Transient or Migrant
V - Irregular Visitor

More on birds...


Photos - Julia Flanagan, Judy Gallagher, Tony Coomer, Kim Hosen, Eli Hosen

To use or purchase images by Julia Flanagan, email For all photographers, email request for contact information to

Bird Lists Merrimac Farm; Featherstone NWR; Occoquan Bay NWR; Rte 234 Wetland Mitigation Area; Backyard; Other Northern Virginia sites



Aquatic birds with a haunting, yodeling call, loons are seldom found on land. They glide across the waters surface, then abruptly plunge into the water to catch fish with spear-shaped bills.

Pied-billed GrebeGrebes

Sometimes mistaken for ducks, grebes have lobed not webbed feet. They are expert divers that catch fish and other aquatic animals. Grebes can sink slowly into the water, sometimes leaving only their head and neck above like a periscope.

Double-crested CormorantCormorants

A family of fisheaters that lives along the shorelines of freshwater and saltwater worldwide. Lacking the water repellant oils of other water birds, Cormorants spend considerable time drying their wings.

Great EgretBitterns, Egrets, Herons

Found on all continents except Antartica, these birds prefer wetlands, damp meadow and forest stream habitats. Bitterns, egrets and herons are carnivorous. Most feed in shallow water, where they wade in search of prey to capture with their long, sharp bills.

Glossy IbisIbises

These long-legged birds live in wetlands or wooded areas near water where temperatures are warm. In flight, they hold their necks and legs extend straight out. Sociable birds, Ibises usually roost, breed and feed in large groups.

Black VultureAmerican Vultures

Large birds with naked heads and hooked bills, they feed almost exclusively on carrion. When captured or frightened, American Vultures vomit the contents of their stomach. They do not build a nest, eggs are placed in a hollow tree or log, crevice in rocks or on the ground.

MallardGeese, Swans, Ducks

Birds in this family are found from the Arctic Circle to the equatorial rainforests, where they live in lakes, ocean, bays, marshes and ponds. They have long, sometimes very long, necks, short strong legs and webbing between three toes. Humans have long used members of this family for food.

Sharp-shinned HawkEagles, Hawks

Found on all continents except Antarctica and in every kind of land habitat - from tundra to deserts, wetlands, mountains, and cities. All are carnivorous and eat only freshly caught prey. Hawks with short wings and long tails are good at flying through the woods. Those that soar to great heights have long, broad wings and broad tails.

Peregrine FalconFalcons

Powerful predators, falcons have keen eyesight that can spot a mouse a mile away. They have long, pointed wings and long tails. Falcons are built for speed not soaring, they can reach speeds up to 200 mpg when diving.

Northern BobwhiteGrouse, Turkey, Quail

Stoutly built with small heads and short wings, these birds have short thick bills that are good for foraging. Most walk more than they fly, where they are known for powerful, short bursts of energy as they take flight. When alarmed, some species fly straight up into the air and then fly away from the threat.

American CootRails, Coots

Most family members live in marshland or dense forest. Most have long toes, which are good for walking and running on soft, uneven ground. With short, rounded wings, they are generally weak flyers but are also able to cover long distances. Most Rails are very thin, which helps them slip through cattails and reeds, and gives us the expression "thin as a rail."


Seemingly never lacking in energy, plovers are strong runners that dart rapidly over the ground stopping abruptly when they find small invertebrates or bits of plants to eat. Then they hurry on to the next morsel. Their nests are typically shallow scrapes in bare soil, sand or among rocks. Plovers inhabit open areas like fields, prairies and shores and flats.

American WoodcockSandpipers

Sandpipers as a family cover many species beyond those with the word 'sandpiper' in their name. Most have long legs, long slender bills and earth-tone plumage making the differences between them subtle and sometimes difficult to distinguish. They are often seen in flocks, moving in unison in flight. A few species buck the norm. Like the solitary sandpiper which is more, well… solitary. And the woodcock, that prefers moist humus-rich forests with a good supply of earthworms.

Laughing GullGulls, Terns

Gulls are a very successful group of species that have adapted well to human habitation, taking advantage of fishing industry waste and landfill waste. It takes 2 to 4 years for a gull to attain the characteristic adult white and gray plumage. Meanwhile, juvenile plumage can be variable and confusing. While gulls may be found inland, terns in our region are more exclusively coastal. Terns can be distinguished from gulls by their forked tail, more pointed bill and pointed wings.

Mourning DovePigeons, Doves

Familiar to even the most urban dweller, pigeons were introduced to North America by early European settlers. They have since spread throughout the U.S. and into Canada. Their plumage displays a great variety of subdued colors. Our native mourning dove is smaller and more slender with a long, pointed tail. Gentle and timid compared to the pigeon, it gets it name from its mournful call. Year-round residents, both feed primarily on seeds and some fruit.

Black-billed CuckooCuckoos

The name comes from the sound their Eurasian cousin makes, but don't think you will hear that from our native species. Their calls are more like low clucks or hoots. And you'll need a sharp eye to spot one because cuckoos like to skulk around quietly in open woodlands and stream-sides or orchards. Their favorite foods (and one of the few birds to eat them) are hairy caterpillars like the invasive gypsy moth and our native tent caterpillar. They also eat other insects, spiders, small invertebrates and fruit.

Barn Owls

Considered distinct from the ‘true' or ‘typical' owls due to physical characteristics that are largely inconspicuous, our barn owl is one of only 3 species of barn owls world-wide, and it is declining in the eastern U.S. Like true owls, the barn owl is carnivorous feeding mostly on small rodents, swallowing them whole and then regurgitating the remains in pellet form. Tree cavities and man-made structures are often used as nest sites. One rarely sees barn owls because they are almost strictly nocturnal and have nearly silent flight – an essential trait for sneaking up on prey.
  • Barn Owl (PR)

Great Horned OwlTypical Owls

These more than any other birds capture our imaginations in stories, myths and folklore. And why not? Their nocturnal and secretive nature, loud resonant haunting calls, large eyes, piercing stare, and silent flight are just a few things that stir creativity. Mainly cavity nesters they will sometimes use an abandoned nest if it is large enough. Ranging in size from 8” to 22”, our owls are excellent hunters, taking a variety of prey that suits their size, from moths to reptiles to rabbits and even other birds.


So named because of an ancient myth that they would fly onto farms at night and suck dry the teats of goats, these birds actually use their wide mouths to feed on insects caught on the wing at night. Their nocturnal habits and excellent camouflage makes them more easily heard than seen, though you may chance upon one roosting on the ground during the day – if your eyes are keen!


Aptly named for their speedy and agile flight. Swifts catch insects as they fly. Told from the similar swallows by how their wings bend closer to their bodies than swallows. Some call them ‘flying cigars'. They nest in chimneys, barns and tree hollows. The chimney swift is the only swift species in eastern North America.

  • Chimney Swift (SR)

Ruby-throated HummingbirdHummingbirds

With over 320 species of ‘hummers' world-wide, only 14 breed in North America and only 1 breeds east of the Mississippi. Their needle-like bills and extremely long tongue pump nectar from flowers (their primary food) but they also use them to catch spiders and insects. Their precision movements are facilitated by their tiny size and rapid wing beat (up to 53 beats/second!). They are the only bird that can fly backwards. They build their soft nests from pieces of plants, (often using lichen) held together by spider webs and lined with downy plant fibers.

Belted KingfisherKingfishers

Symmetrically challenged, kingfishers can be recognized by their oversized bill and head, short thick neck, jagged crest and small stubby legs. They are usually found perched along a wooded stream bank, spying out their next meal or briefly hovering over water before diving to the surface to pluck out a small fish. Because they eat fish whole they regurgitate a pellet of indigestible parts, much like owls do. The belted kingfisher breaks the plumage norm among birds - the female is more colorful than the male.

Pileated WoodpeckerWoodpeckers

The hollow sound of their territorial drumming has delighted many a woodland hiker. But pounding one’s head into wood all day – how do they manage? With special adaptations. Bones at the base of the bill have special construction to act as shock absorbers. Their feet have 2 toes front and 2 back, making for a better grip in a vertical position and a stiff tail is used for balance and support. Since most construct a new nest each year, many other birds and even some mammals take over the old holes for nesting. An especially long tongue with a barbed and sticky tip makes extracting insect larvae their specialty.

Eastern PhoebeFlycatchers

Their colors are usually nothing to write home about - drab browns with perhaps a little yellow and their songs are simple and unmelodic. But what they lack in flashy colors they make up for in skill at obtaining their food on-the-wing. Flycatchers are usually seen perched near an open area making forays for flying insects and then returning to their perch. Bristle-like feathers around the mouth may help in sensing prey or may protect the eyes while hunting.

Warbling VireoVireos

Small songbirds of woodlands and brushy areas. Vireo plumage is usually subdued gray or olive on the back with an off-white or soft yellow breast. They feed by gleaning insects and small invertebrates from plant surfaces. Intricate nests woven from grasses, other plant fibers, and hair are built dangling from branch forks and bound together with spider silk. Vireos are exclusively indigenous to the western hemisphere.

Fish CrowCrows, Jays

Raucous, bold, gregarious, intelligent… might sound like someone you know. Crows are among our largest songbirds. Although some might debate that what comes from between their beaks is a song, some species have an extensive vocal repertoire and can mimic new sounds. Crows and jays are strong-bodied birds equally at home on the wing or walking on the ground. Crows are opportunistic omnivores. Jays, which eat mainly insects, fruit and seeds, have been known to prey on the eggs and nestlings of other bird species.


Small, ground-dwelling birds that live in open fields. Most species have long hind claws, thought to provide stability for standing. They lay 2-6 speckled eggs in nests built on the ground. Muted coloring and streaked brown plumage provides good camouflage on the ground. Adults eat mainly seeds. Larks are known for their long, melodious songs and extravagant aerial song displays. A group of larks is called an “exaltation.”
  • Horned Lark (PR)

Tree SwallowSwallows

Swallows are strong, agile fliers who hunt insects on the wing. Their slender, streamlined bodies, forked tails and long, pointed wings make them easy to recognize. Swallows frequent open areas with a good supply of flying insects, such as lakes, streams, wetlands and grasslands. Most build mud nests close to overhead shelter where they lay 3-6 eggs. The chicks hatch naked and with closed eyes.

Carolina ChickadeeChickadees, Titmice

A large family of small, stocky woodland birds, chickadees and titmice are quick, clever and adaptable. They have short, stout bills and eat a variety of seeds and insects. Many species enjoy the suburban lifestyle, where they frequent birdfeeders looking for seeds and nuts. Other favorite habitats include forests, woodlands, parks and orchards. They nest in holes, including tree cavities, nest boxes and sometimes even pipes. Nests are lined with soft materials, where females lay 4-10 eggs that generally hatch in 14 days.

White-breasted NuthatchNuthatches

Defying gravity and a sense of equilibrium, nuthatches often travel head-first down a tree trunk in contrast to woodpeckers and creepers that move almost exclusively up. Small in stature with a finely pointed bill on which the lower mandible tapers in an upward line, they probe the crevices of bark and branches for insects and other invertebrates. In preparation for winter, nuthatches will often store up seeds and bugs in caches. When not breeding they will feed in mixed flocks with chickadees, titmice and other small songbirds.

Brown Creeper Creepers

Creepers are similar in shape and habits to nuthatches – except creepers move primarily up a tree, have a curved bill, and their brown back speckled with white provides better camouflage. They prefer mature coniferous forests or mixed coniferous-deciduous forests. With tree climbing behavior similar to woodpeckers, it is not surprising that they have long stiff tail feathers used for balance – similar to woodpeckers. There are only 7 species of creepers world-wide and only 1 in North America.


Small, brown and perky, the wrens of the eastern U.S. are often seen flitting about close to the ground in brushy or marshy habitats. Their bodies are compact, with short, rounded wings and a short tail that is often carried ‘cocked’ in an upright position. Their little bodies pack a loud song and a great variety of song. The male Carolina wren is known to have at least 32 songs in its repertoire while the male marsh wren may have at least 50. They like to sing so much you may hear them at any time of year.

Ruby-crowned KingletKinglets

Tiny and very active, Kinglets are insectivores that must constantly forage to support their rapid metabolism. Generally with gray-green plumage, most species have an eye-ring or stripe above the eye.

Blue-gray GnatcatcherGnatcatchers

A family of small, gray and white birds that mostly live in the tropics. The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is the most widespread species. They are insectivores with long, sharp bills and long, narrow tails they hold in a cocked-up position.

Hungry Robin ChicksThrushes

Eloquent songsters of open marshes and woodlands, the thrushes include many familiar species. They are plump, soft-plumaged birds with narrow notched bills that feed on insects and fruit.

Northern MockingbirdMimids, Thrashers

A diverse family that includes species that range from the loud and outgoing to the shy and secretive. Known for their vocalizations, most mimic other bird songs and outdoor sounds. Many species hop through the forest floor, scrub habitats or backyards on long, strong legs searching for arthropods, berries or seeds to eat. Some species are aggressive and have been known to harass neighborhood cats and dogs.

European StarlingStarlings

Most species are dark, with a metallic sheen. They are strong fliers with strong legs and strong, straight bills. Sociable outside of breeding season, Starlings prefer open habitats, including developed areas. Holes and crevices in trees, buildings and rooftops provide nesting sites. They are omnivores who walk while feeding on invertebrates, fruits and seeds. Starlings were first brought to North America by wealthy Shakespeare enthusiast Eugene Schieffelin, said to have wanted to introduce all birds mentioned in Shakespeare's plays to North America.

American PipitPipits

Birds of open country, pipits spend their summers in arctic marshes and barrens and their winters among fields and beaches to the south, including our region. At home on the ground they walk about (rather than hop like many songbirds do) frequently pumping their tails up and down as they hung for insects, worms, and snails as well as seeds.

Cedar WaxwingWaxwings

Red and yellow waxy feather tips on their wings and tail stand out in contrast to body feathers that melt seamlessly from one warm tone to another. The purpose of the waxy tips remains a mystery. Waxwings are gregarious forming small flocks in winter and once the young have fledged in summer. They feed exclusively on plants: mostly fruit (sometimes gorging themselves to the point of having difficulty flying) but also flowers and sap. Alcohol toxicity can be deadly for those birds who feed too heavily on fermented over-ripe fruit.

Yellow-rumped WarblerWarblers

This large group of songbirds includes 53 species that occur in North America. In our region the greatest variety of warblers may be seen during migration as many breed in northern forests and winter far to the south. Those that breed nearby are a delight to the eyes – bright colorful accents on the canvas of the forest. Almost all warblers are small (4 ¼ to 5 ¾ inches) and slender with a medium sized pointed bill. Their name reveals the quality of song among the group, although some species make little more than lispy or cricket-like sounds.


Although this is a large family world-wide, only 2 species occur in our region. Birds of the forest, they nest and feed in trees, feeding mainly on insects and some fruit. You may see one high above silently following you as you hike along a forest trail. Little can compare with the sight of the males’ brilliant breeding plumage. The scarlet tanager needs a sizeable tract of continuous forest for breeding habitat. Forest fragmentation is a significant cause of population decline.

White-crowned SparrowSparrows

Generally, small birds of open habitats like grasslands and marshes. This preference for open areas and their seed and insect eating habits make suburban yards suitable for some species. The shape of their bill is well designed for hfusking seeds. Most species sport drab browns and grays, which makes good camouflage, but can also make identification a challenge. The term “sparrow” has its origins in the Indo-European word meaning “to flutter”. Towhees and juncos share the finch-like characteristics of the group.

Northern CardinalCardinals, Grosbeaks, Buntings

A penchant for open areas, woodlands and forest edges places this group among our best loved suburban dwellers. A bright red male cardinal is an icon of life on a snowy winter’s day. The brilliant blue of the indigo bunting has caused many a new birder to stare in amazement. Breeding pairs form cup nests of grasses, small twigs and leaves, lined with fine grasses and animal hair. Young are born naked and helpless. Both parents feed and care for young in the nest, then the male feeds the new fledglings.

Baltimore OrioleBlackbirds, Orioles

Not all black birds are Blackbirds and not all Blackbirds are black… some are boldly patterned with yellow, orange or red. Although most species live in the tropics, this diverse group of birds is found is found in virtually every habitat in the Western Hemisphere. They eat many different foods, including insects, seeds, grains and fruit. Nesting habits are also varied; some species weave pendulous nests, some nest in burrows and some parasitize the nests of others. Many species nest in huge colonies and often travel in flocks except during the breeding season.

American GoldfinchGrosbeaks, Finches

A large family of small to medium-sized birds that live in open forests and woodlands, parks, gardens, and fields with hedgerows. Most eat seeds, some eat fruits or insects. Finches are strong fliers with an undulating flight, alternating flapping with gliding on closed wings. They use plant fibers to build cup-shaped nests in trees or shrubs. Many are drab with various streaking but some are brightly colored, mostly with reds and yellows. Many species have been captured and bred for sale as pets because people are drawn to their beautiful songs and attractive appearance.

Old World Sparrows

Originally found only in Eurasia and Africa, Old World Sparrows have been introduced to areas worldwide where they quickly naturalized, especially in urban and degraded areas. They live just about everywhere, from open woodlands to wetlands and urban areas. They can even live and breed inside buildings, such as big box retail stores and airports. Old World Sparrows are generally small, plump brown birds with short tails and powerful beaks. They are mainly seed-eaters but will also eat small insects and some will scavenge for food in cities, where they eat small amounts of virtually anything. House Sparrows kill Bluebirds sitting on nests, along with the young and eggs, and then take over the nest. They are a major factor in the decline of Bluebirds and other cavity-nesters in North America.