A Brief Guide to Common Birds

The 28 bird species selected for this guide were chosen because they are some of the most widespread and common birds in North America and are found in a wide variety of habitats. They are presented in roughly the same order in which they are found in standard field guides. The description of the bird is given, followed by a call to a recording the voice of the bird. For example, the first bird is Common Loon. The description of the bird is followed by a clickable link to a recording of a frequently heard call of the Common Loon. Descriptions and habitat listings are adapted from the NHEST Interactive Guide to the Birds.

The sounds given below are some of the more common sounds made by the various birds. All bird voice files were obtained from They are shortened and condensed from the original recordings made by MIST Software in order to make them more manageable over the internet. Remember, some birdsongs go on for a long time. The Mockingbird often sings for extended periods, and the Red-eyed Vireo seems to sing constantly while feeding in the treetops. The Whip-poor-will’s loud song can also go on and on. And these nocturnal birds seem to choose singing spots near the windows of sleeping humans. At first, the bird enthusiast feels fortunate to be able to hear the Whip-poor-will without even getting out of bed. But before long, he or she begins to wonder if the bird has an ‘off’ switch. Some birds make many different calls.

Following the list of birds is a list of general habitat types and the birds from this guide often found in the various habitat types. Remember, many birds may be seen in a variety of habitats.

The Birds

bulletThe Common Loon (Gavia immer) is a black and white waterbird longer than the arm of a big man. It’s wild, ringing calls are often regarded as the voice of the north woods. Loons are found on wooded lakes and rivers in Canada and northern United States in the summer and in the ocean as far south as the gulf coast in winter. Loons feed by catching fish under water. The loon is the state bird of Minnesota.
bulletVoice of the loon

bulletThe Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) is a gray-backed bird of coasts, bays, beaches, lakes, piers, farmlands, and dumps. It is found throughout the northern parts of the northern hemisphere. These are noisy, gregarious birds which will eat almost anything. They are about the length of a man’s arm.
bulletHerring Gull voice

bulletThe Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) is a heavy bodied, black, white, and gray water bird ranging in size from much shorter than a person’s arm to much longer. It is found in Canada and northern US in summer. The birds winter from the northern states south. The voice is a honking sound, often heard overhead during spring and fall migrations.
bulletCanada Goose voice

bulletThe Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) is the common duck from which many barnyard ducks are descended. A little longer than an adult’s forearm, the male has a green head, chestnut breast, and a mixture of gray, brown, and white behind. The female is mainly brown except for blue and white wing patches. Females quack, males squeak. The Mallard is found throughout the northern hemisphere in marshes, swamps, ponds, grainfields, rivers, lakes, and bays. It typically feeds by tipping up so that its head is below the surface but its tail is pointed skyward.
bulletVoice of the Mallard

bulletThe Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)is slightly larger than a human’s handspan, brown and white with black rings on the neck. Its name derives from its loud repetition of its call. Though technically a shorebird of the plover group, it is found in fields, airports, and lawns as well as shorelands. It is found from Canada to Mexico in the summer with some migration from northern areas in winter.
bulletVoice of the Killdeer

bulletThe Redtailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is one of the commonest hawks of North America as far south as Panama. It is variably brown and white with a striking red tail in adults. A bird of the open country, the Redtail feeds primarily on small rodents. Its call is often described as a high, asthmatic scream. The birds wingspan is about the same as a 12-year-old child’s armspan.
bulletRed-tailed Hawk voice

bulletThe ‘mourning’ in the name, ‘Mourning Dove’ refers to the sad quality of its call. A primarily brown (with mixes of pink, black, and white) bird, the Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)is the size of man’s hand, but with a long tail. It is found in a wide variety of habitats from southern Canada to Panama.
bulletMourning Dove voice

bulletThe Rock Dove (Columba livia), or Domestic Pigeon, is a Eurasian import found primarily in urban areas and farmlands. The color schemes are widely variable. Its voice is a gurgling cooo.
bulletRock Dove voice

bulletThe Whip-poor-will (Caprimulgus vociferus)was named for its voice, though some think the call sounds more like, ‘Purple Rib.’ This large-headed night bird the size of a man’s hand is brownish in color and nests from Canada to Central America where it chases insects in leafy woodlands. It winters from the gulf states southward. The accent on the first and last syllables of the often-repeated call distinguish it from near relative Chuck-will’s-widow which accents the middle syllables of its call.
bulletVoice of Whip-poor- will

bulletThe Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) is a large — longer than the forearm of a large man — brownish mottled owl with ear tufts. It ranges from tree-line in the north to Tierra del Fuego and is found in a wide variety of habitats. Its call is distinguished from that of other species by the distinctive cadence. Great Horned Owls eat a variety of birds and mammals, including, reportedly, skunks.
bulletGreat Horned Owl voice

bulletThe Barred Owl (Strix varia) is a tuftless, mottled gray-brown bird of deciduous forests from Canada to Central America. It’s call is often rendered as ‘Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?’ Most northern birds don’t seem to say ‘you-all’, while southern birds do. Caution should be used in interpreting this bit of trivia.
bulletBarred Owl voice

bulletThe Common Flicker (Colaptes auratus) is a mottled yellow, black, red, and white bird with red or yellow under the wings. It is larger than hand-sized. Found from as far north as treeline in the summer, it migrates from these northerly areas in winter. Flickers are the woodpecker most likely to be found on the ground where they feed on ants. The call is like the Pileated Woodpeckers, but longer and less ringing. Under the name, ‘Yellowhammer’ it is the state bird of Alabama.
bulletThe Flicker’s voice

bulletA forearm-length, noisy, gregarious bird of woods and farmland, the Common Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is a familiar figure from Canada to southern US. It feeds on just about anything making it unpopular with farmers whose crops it eats and with other birds whose eggs it eats. The voice is clearer and less nasal than that of other crows.
bulletCommon Crow voice

bulletNoisy, agressive, and gregarious, the Bluejay (Cyanocitta cristata) is a crested blue, and white bird with a black collar. It is larger than a person’s hand. It is found from Canada to the gulf states where its variety of calls are familiar in forest and town. It often mimics hawks, scaring other birds from feeders. Bluejays eat just about anything organic.
bulletBluejay voice

bulletThe Black-capped Chickadee (Parus attricapillus) is a thumb-sized, omniverous black, white, and gray bird of woodlands and feeders of northern US and Canada. The familiar chickadee call is an alarm note. It’s song is a two note ‘fee-bee’. The other chickadees of the country have either higher pitched, harsher, or no chickadee calls. The almost indistinguishable Carolina Chickadee has a higher pitched call and a four-note song. The Black-capped Chickadee is the state bird of Maine and Massachussetts.
bulletBlack-capped Chickadee voice

bulletThe Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) is found in coniferous and mixed woods in Canada and northern US in the summer, wintering in the southeast. It is a chubby bird not much larger than a man’s thumb and is found crawling down tree trunks headfirst in search of insects. Its calls are similar to those of the White-breasted Nuthatch with which it may be found at feeders or in mixed woods.
bulletRed-breasted Nuthatch voice

bulletThe Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) is a slender, gray and white bird longer than a man’s hand. It is found from southern Canada to southern Mexico, though it is scattered in the northern part of its range. It is found in towns, farms, roadsides, and thickets where it eats fruits and insects. The mockingbird is the famous mimic of other birds. It usually repreats phrases in its song three or more times which distinguishes it from near relatives such as the Brown Thrasher and Catbird which use less repitition.
bulletVoice of the Mockingbird

bulletThe American Robin (Turdus migratorius) is a heavy-bodied gray bird with a brick-red breast. It is the length of a large man’s span. The Robin is found from Alaska and Canada to southern Mexico and winters, often in large flocks, generally south of Canada. It is found in urban and suburban areas, farmlands, and forests. The song is cheerful sounding, consisting of a succession of short phrases.
bulletAmerican Robin’s voice

bulletThe Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) is a small handsized bird of coniferous or mixed woods from Alaska and Canada to western and northeastern US. It winters in southern US and southward. It is brown and white with a spotted breast and a reddish tail. The Hermit Thrush is often considered the best singer — at least to human ears — of all the birds. Each phrase of its song is clear and flutelike, variable in pitch. It is introduced by a single clear note. Other thrushes have similar, though distinctive songs.
bulletSong of the Hermit Thrush

bulletThe Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) is a chubby, slow-moving olive and white bird the size of a child’s span. It is found in deciduous forests in eastern US and Canada. The bird winters in South America. The Red-eyed Vireo’s song is a long monotonous string of short phrases that seem to go on forever. It can be rendered as: ‘Im-a vireo. And-what are-you? Not-that I-really care- much as-long-as I-find bugs-on this-leaf…’ and on and on.
bulletRed-eyed Vireo voice

bulletYellow Warblers (Dendroica petechia) are just that — yellow. The males add red streaking beneath. Found eating insects in thickets, wetlands, and gardens throughout North America it is one of our most widely spread and well-known members of the Wood Warbler group. The song is rendered by some listeners as: ‘Sweet-sweet-sweet; I’m so sweet.’ It can be a good memory aid to put words like that to bird songs as long as you remember that what he is REALLY saying is ‘I’m the biggest, toughest yellow warbler in the world and you better keep out of my territory — except for you ladies, of course.
bulletYellow Warbler song

bulletThe Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) is a thumb-sized yellow and brown bird with a distinctive black burglar’s mask in the males. Found in wet brushlands throughout most of North America in the summer, it winters in southern US and the West Indes. Its song is distinctive, consisting of a short repitition of two or three note phrases.
bulletCommon Yellowthroat song

bulletThis hand-sized marsh and field bird has a loud, harsh, familiar voice. The Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is heard from Canada to the West Indes. The males are black with red and yellow shoulder patches, females are brown and white with heavy streaking.
bulletRed-winged Blackbird voice

bulletThe European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is a black speckled bird introduced in this area and now found wherever people are found. It’s squeeking and squawking can make one bird sound like a whole treefull. In winter, the Starling gathers in huge flocks with other blackbirds.
bulletEuropean Starling voice

bulletThe House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is a brown, gray, and black bird the length of a child’s span. This Eurasian import is now found in cities and farms throughout most of the world. It is an aggressive bird whose song is little more than a frequent repetition of its call note.
bulletHouse Sparrow voice

bulletThe Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a crested, hand-sized red bird, very striking in the male. It is the state bird of seven different states. Cardinals are found in urban and suburban areas and margins of woodlands from southern Canada to the gulf states and across the south to Mexico and Central America. The song is a variable series of clear whistles, one common version being rendered by some listeners as; ‘birdy, birdy, birdy’.
bulletCardinal voice

bulletThe Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) is between thumb-size and child’s hand-size. It is rusty and brown streaked above, gray beneath. It is found in open coniferous woods, farms, and gardens from Canada to Central America. It winters from southern US south. The song is a weak, dry trill that can in some cases be mistaken for other trilling birds such as Junco, Pine Warbler, or Swamp Sparrow.
bulletChipping Sparrow song

bulletThe Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is a brown and white streaked bird with a spot in the breast. The length of a child’s span, it is found in brushy areas and gardens throughout most of North America. The song usually starts with three or four sharp, musical notes, and is variable after that.
bulletSong Sparrow voice

Habitat Types

bulletBIRDS OF CITIES, TOWNS, AND SUBURBS: Birds found in cities, towns, and suburbs include; Herring Gull, Mourning Dove, Rock Dove, Common Crow, Bluejay, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Mockingbird, American Robin, Yellow Warbler, European Starling, House Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Chipping Sparrow, and Song Sparrow.

bulletBIRDS OVERHEAD: Birds often heard flying overhead include; Herring Gull, Canada Goose, Killdeer, and Red-tailed Hawk.

bulletBIRDS OF WET AREAS: Birds heard in wet areas include; Common Loon, Herring Gull, Canada Goose, Mallard Duck, Killdeer, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, and Red-winged Blackbird.

bulletFOREST BIRDS: Birds commonly heard in and around forests include; Mourning Dove, Whip-poor-will, Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, Common Flicker, Common Crow, Bluejay, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Red-eyed Vireo, and Northern Cardinal.

bulletBIRDS OF FARM AND OPEN LANDS: Birds commonly heard in farming and open areas include; Herring Gull, Canada Goose, Mallard Duck, Killdeer, Redtailed Hawk, Mourning Dove, Rock Dove, Whip-poor-will, Great Horned Owl, Common Flicker, Common Crow, Bluejay, American Robin, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Red-winged Blackbird, European Starling, House Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, and Song Sparrow.

bulletNIGHTBIRDS: Birds often or usually heard at night or late evening include; “Common Loon, Whip-poor-will, Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, Northern Mockingbird, and Hermit Thrush.

Main Index

Index of Birds