Sometimes when you’re out birdwatching, you’ll see a new bird with a distinctive feature, yet you can’t identify it. Then you ruminate, wondering what it could be, until you turn to the internet for your answer.
Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself looking at a page like this.
The truth is, there are more black-headed birds in North America than we could ever mention on a single page. Instead, we’ve compiled a fascinating list of both common and especially interesting black-headed birds for you to enjoy.
If you manage to identify a bird you saw on your travels, then all the better!
Types of Black-headed Birds in North America
North American Orioles
Orioles are some of the most striking medium-sized birds in North America. Whereas many species are yellow and orange across much of their bodies, a few species contrast their bright plumage with a black head.
The most widespread of these is the Baltimore Oriole. Common in open deciduous woodlands and suburban parks, it’s the male that has a striking black head and back, set against bright orange plumage on its underside.
Occupying a similar range to the Baltimore Oriole but much rarer is the Orchard Oriole. Seen across much of the East and Midwest, the Orchard Oriole is the smallest member of the family. Sometimes mistaken for a warbler, the male has a black head, throat, and back, contrasting its chestnut body.
Another less common black-headed oriole is Scott’s Oriole. Local only to the Southwestern States, the jet-black head and chest of the male are set against a lemon-yellow body.
The other two species that qualify are seldom seen in the USA. Audubon’s Oriole can only be found in Southern Texas, just across the border from Mexico. The Black-vented Oriole is even rarer, occasionally popping up in Texas and Arizona.
Oregon Dark Eyed-Junco
If there’s a black-headed bird that could catch out even a seasoned birder, it might be the Oregon subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco.
Dark-eyed juncos are some of the most common and widespread sparrows in North America, but many people don’t realize that there are not one but six types or ‘subspecies’!
While other types of dark-eyed junco have light or dark gray heads, the male of the Oregon subspecies has a distinctive, charcoal black hood, covering its entire head, neck, and shoulders. The rest of its body comprises a rufous back and flanks and a white belly.
While Western readers will be well-familiar with the Oregon Junco, residents of the East may have never seen this bird in their lives. Surprising people wherever they occasionally pop up, Oregon dark-eyed juncos have been recorded in every state of the mainland USA!
Now, from a tiny bird to a big one! A member of the Falcon family, quite unlike any other, the Crested Caracara is built like a buzzard and struts like a vulture.
The tufted black crown of the Crested Caracara starkly contrasts with its barred white neck.
Using its super long, muscular legs it mainly hunts on the ground rather than from the sky. Often occurring in pairs, they feed primarily on carrion, small mammals, and lizards.
Native to Arizona, Texas, and Florida, Crested Caracaras are occasionally seen anywhere in between. Their wingspan of 49 inches is broader even than the formidable Gyrfalcon.
Their unique and impressive physique and character have won Caracaras favor with some falconry enthusiasts. Check out this video of an endearing specimen named Kevin who seems determined to live life on the ground rather than using her wings!
Spotted Towhee and Eastern Towhee
Two more black-headed members of the sparrow clan are the Spotted Towhee and the Eastern Towhee. The two species are such similar birds that they can crossbreed together in the few places where their ranges overlap.
For the most part, however, Spotted Towhees are restricted to the Western States from Washington to Western Texas, whereas Eastern Towhees are seen from New England to Eastern Texas.
The males of both species have black heads with rufous and white undersides. Females have more of a dark brown head in some regions, but otherwise look similar to males. Most types also have red eyes, except for the white-eyed subspecies in the Southeastern States.
These two towhees are fairly common birds and are found in every contingent state. Their secretive habit and solitary nature, however, can sometimes make them difficult to observe.
North American Warblers
Several members of the warbler family have significant amounts of black on their heads.
Perhaps the most striking example is that of the American Redstart, a small, long-tailed warbler. Common and widespread across much of the United States and Canada, the male has a very dark blue-black head with an orange and white underside.
The Common Yellow Throat is another frequently seen warbler across the country. Although its head also consists of brown, white, and yellow plumage, it’s the black mask across its eyes that’s its most distinctive field mark.
MacGillivray’s Warbler and the Mourning Warbler are two more species with dark gray-pale blackheads and throats, strikingly set against their yellow and green bodies. While widespread, neither species is very common.
To complete our list of warblers with significant portions of black on their heads, we’d need to mention the Painted Redstart, Slate-throated Redstart, Bay-breasted Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Hooded Warbler, and Golden-winged Warbler. Phew!
Common Myna Bird
If you’ve ever been to Southeast Asia, the mechanical calls of the Common Myna bird will be quite familiar to you. But because these birds possess the startling ability to mimic sounds including human speech, they’re often kept as pets and sometimes escape.
Also known as Indian Myna Birds, Common Mynas have naturalized in Florida and are becoming more common. They’ve since learned to impersonate local native birds like Boat-tailed grackles, and Purple Martins.
Common Mynas are fairly tame birds that often nest in manmade cavities like shopping mall street lights. They’ve become an invasive species in Australia, where they were originally introduced to control insect pests. A lesson of caution to the rest of the world!
Common Mynas can be recognized by their brown body, golden legs, bill and eye ring, and otherwise black head. With a wingspan of 18 inches across, they’re about the same size as a Common Grackle.
No list of black-headed birds would be complete without the American Robin.
One of the most familiar backyard birds in the United States and Canada, American robins have a gorgeous orange-red chest and gray backs. Their heads vary in shades of light gray to dark black according to the region and genetic variation.
American robins have an enormous range, extending from its breeding-only range in the Arctic Circle to its winter-only range in Guatemala and Belize. They can be seen year-round in much of the territory in between, including every mainland US state.
In winter, American robins gather in large flocks to roost and forage, sometimes numbering hundreds or even thousands of birds. They mostly rely on berries during the colder months, meaning planting crab apples, mountain ash and Aronia is a great way to support them during the winter.
Some of the most common birds with blackheads are the chickadees. The Carolina Chickadee, Mountain Chickadee, Mexican Chickadee, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, and Black-capped Chickadee all have distinctive black crowns, throats, and bills.
Chickadees are small, social, inquisitive songbirds that often join flocks with other woodland birds. They feed primarily on insects and seeds and love to eat peanuts and sunflower seeds from backyard tube feeders. They’re also fond of nesting in manmade cavities such as birdhouses.
Close cousins of the Chickadee clan are the Titmouses. These birds are mostly light-grayish in color, but the Black-crested Titmouse possesses a large, impressive black crest and black plumage around its eyes. They’re seen in Texas and Southern Oklahoma.
Swifts and Swallows
Contrary to popular belief, swifts and swallows are not closely related, but they do share a similar physique and incredible command of the sky so are often lumped together.
Of all 12 species of North American swallow, the female tree swallow has the truest black head, contrasting with a clean white chin and underside. The bank swallow, cave swallow, and female violet-green swallow also have varying amounts of black head plumage.
Despite their similar appearance, swifts are more closely related to hummingbirds than to swallows. Unlike swallows, they almost never land, only perching to nest or roost. At other times they may simply sleep on the wing!
Several swifts have dark heads, but it’s the white-collared swift whose black head, separated by the white collar, is especially striking.
There are several types of sea birds with black heads, but let’s start with the Murres.
The Common Murre is a football-shaped bird with a white belly and clean black back and a solid black head in the breeding season. When not breeding, their head is half black and half white.
Thick-billed Murres are similar-looking birds but with a heavier, down-turned bill and a head that remains primarily black throughout the year.
Both species are fishing specialists and nest in large colonies on rocky cliffs above the ocean. Out of breeding season, murres spend their time on the open ocean, usually far away from shore where nobody except for those in passing boats ever see them.
Since few people will ever see the murre’s incredible underwater swimming abilities, we thought it’d be worth sharing this fascinating National Geographic video of them hunting. Their torpedo-like swimming style might even remind you of penguins!
There are not many entire bird families that can be characterized by their black heads, but the Tern tribe is an exception.
Every species of North American tern has at least some black on its head, and this usually becomes very pronounced during the breeding season. The most common species in the USA include the Caspian Tern, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, Forster’s Tern, and Least Tern.
Terns are closely related to gulls but are smaller, plunge-diving specialists that feed almost exclusively on small fish. While some species are purely coastal hunters, others also frequent inland lakes and rivers.
All species of these elegant birds roost in large groups and nest in colonies by water, often on islands in the sea as well as lakes.
Several species of gull that frequent North America’s lands and waters have black heads during the breeding season.
The most common of these is the Laughing Gull and Bonaparte’s Gull, but the Little Gull, Black-headed Gull, Sabine’s Gull, and Franklin’s Gull also display black heads when breeding.
Gulls are notoriously difficult to identify and all six species listed above look quite similar, whether in their breeding or non-breeding plumage.
Calling these birds ‘seagulls’ isn’t always appropriate, either. Franklin’s Gull, for example, only breeds on inland lakes in the North Western USA and Canada. All six black-headed gulls have, however, been recorded on both Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
Both of North America’s magpies possess deep green to black heads, throats, and shoulders.
The Black-billed Magpie is a common bird of prairies and parks in the Western half of the continent. These largely carnivorous birds are often seen perched along roadsides, perhaps waiting for carrion to feed on.
Their cousin the Yellow-billed Magpie is similar in appearance, except for its beautiful golden beak. It has a tiny range compared with its relative, though, and is only seen among the oak savannas of Central California.
Magpies were extensively persecuted during the 1920s and 1930s when farmers believed they would injure or even kill their livestock. It’s now been accepted that magpies usually land on farm animals to pull out ticks and parasites. Although they can occasionally pick at an existing wound, they’ll never inflict a new one.
Magpies have been protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty since 1982.
Tyrant Flycatchers are small passerine songbirds found exclusively in The Americas. Although there are only 44 species in the United States, there are more than 400 species across the two continents, making them the largest family of birds in the world.
The family also includes the King Birds and Phoebes, several of which have black heads.
The Eastern Kingbird is perhaps the most striking widespread example. Found all over the USA and Canada bar the extreme North and West, adults have a jet black head with clean white underparts.
Its black-headed cousin, the Fork-tailed Flycatcher is surely one of the most spectacular wild birds seen along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, but are only very rare visitors from South America.
Eastern Phoebes and especially Black Phoebes also have black heads and white bellies but are darker all over than any of the Kingbirds.
Last but not least, the Rose-throated Becard is an obscure relative of the Tyrant flycatchers that has a distinctive black crown and rose-colored throat. They’re only occasionally seen in Texas and Arizona.
One of the most comical birds of the American shoreline has to be the American Oystercatcher.
With its stout waddling legs, white belly, and long red bill, both sexes and all subspecies also have a black back and head. The similar-looking Eurasian Oystercatcher is also a rare visitor on American shores.
American Oystercatchers aren’t especially common anywhere, but they do have a large range including the entire USA and Southern Canadian Atlantic coast, as well as Southern California. Oystercatchers do indeed feed on shellfish, as well as crustaceans and other invertebrates.
Oystercatchers usually nest just above the shoreline, lying low in grassy dunes as they incubate their eggs. To see their endearing nesting and parental behavior, check out this short video!
Black turnstones are common waders of the Pacific Coast. Overwintering from Mexico to Canada, they breed exclusively in marshy tundra along the Alaskan seaboard.
Black turnstones are so-called due to their (mostly) black upper body. When you see them in flight, however, it may look like they only have a black head against a white body. Because their underside is mostly white, it makes their black head and neck stand out when seen from below.
The black turnstone’s relative the Ruddy Turnstone can be found along both Pacific and Atlantic coastlines and can appear quite similar when in flight.
Both species earn their name from their fascinating habit of flipping over rocks in search of crustaceans, and mollusks to eat!
A striking, black-headed member of the heron family is the Black-crowned Night Heron.
With stout yellow legs, a white underside, and a black back and crown, this night heron also has beautifully bright ruby-red eyes.
Although they are common and widespread throughout the entire USA and Southern Canada, the Black-crowned Night-Heron is a master of hide and seek and can be very difficult to spot!
These typically solitary birds hunt mostly during the night, meaning your best chance of seeing one is at twilight, hunting for fish and amphibians in the shallow water of ponds and streams.
The Western Grebe and Clark’s Grebe are large water birds of the Western United States and Southwestern Canada.
Looking very similar, both species have white undersides, black heads and crowns, red eyes, and sharp yellow bills. Although they look similar to loons, DNA analysis has revealed that grebes are actually more closely related to flamingos and pigeons!
We thought we’d end the list on a highlight because grebes have some of the most extraordinary courtship rituals in the birding world. In this video, you’ll see a pair of grebes mirroring each other to amazing precision, followed by their spectacular crescendo, walking on water!
This has to be seen to be believed.
There are too many black-headed birds in North America to mention, but we’ve done our best to cover the best of them!
From the Orioles and Warblers of the mountains and meadows to the Herons and Gulls of the shorelines and seas, there are black-headed birds to be enjoyed in every habitat across North America.
We’ve intentionally omitted birds with entirely black bodies in this list. To learn more about those, check out our specially dedicated guide, here.