small birds in California

17 Small Birds in California: Their Habits and Habitats

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From sunny San Diego to the northern national forests and from the tall Sierras to the Pacific coast, California is full of life.

The most biodiverse state in the United States, the Golden State is also the number one state for total bird species spotted, according to eBird. Among them are some very small species, the smallest of which are hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds

Do Hummingbirds Perch
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California’s hummingbirds include the black-chinned hummingbird, Anna’s hummingbird, Costa’s hummingbird, Calliope hummingbird, rufous hummingbird, Allen’s hummingbird, and broad-tailed hummingbird.

Some – like the black-chinned hummingbird or Allen’s hummingbird – stick to the coasts in breeding months, while Anna’s hummingbirds are nearly statewide all year long. It’s the latter that may be the most common of California’s hummingbirds, according to Audubon California.

Anna’s hummingbirds are among the hummers with interesting mating displays in which they climb high into the air and swoop down in front of a potential mate.

Since we’re focusing on California’s smallest birds, we should mention the calliope hummingbird, widely considered North America’s smallest breeding bird.

The bee hummingbird, endemic to Cuba, takes the title of the world’s smallest, but the calliope hummingbird is North America’s smallest breeder, measuring between 3.1 and 3.5 inches and between 2.3 and 3.4 grams, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds.

Its range stretches from southern British Columbia to California and inland as far as Montana and Wyoming.

Swallows

Tree Swallow
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The next two types of birds on our list – swallows and swifts – are similar in both name, shape, and some of their habits, such as their fast-flying behavior.

Though they seem similar, they’re not super closely related, but rather these fast insect-eaters are examples of convergent evolution, evolving to a similar ecological niche.

California’s swallows include the northern rough-winged swallow, purple martin, tree swallow, violet-green swallow, bank swallow, barn swallow, and cliff swallow.

Swallows are cavity nesters. Some will use human-made bird houses or holes in trees or the earth, but if you’ve ever seen nests made of mud on the side of a building, it is likely the work of a swallow – particularly barn or cliff swallows.

This can sometimes cause conflicts with those who own the buildings, especially when they nest in large numbers. These nests are protected by the Migratory Bird Act if they are occupied or in use.

Swifts

Swifts
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Swifts are swift-moving birds seen almost exclusively aerially, zipping around the air like swallows.

The black swift, Vaux’s swift, chimney swift, and white-throated swift all reside in parts of the state, though some are more sparse than others.

The white-throated swift has the most consistent range, residing year-round along much of the coast and through much of southern California.

The only of North America’s swifts with considerable white on the underside, it’s a famous western bird among the area’s cliffs, canyons, and mountains.

Speaking of birds whose nesting habits may come into contact with humans, the chimney swift is known to nest in chimneys, as the bird’s name suggests.

It’s a species in peril, having lost 67% of its population since 1970 with the projection that another 50% of the current population could be lost in the next 27 years, according to Partners in Flight.

Like swallows, swifts and their nests are protected by the Migratory Bird Act. It is illegal to kill the birds or destroy their nests.

Bluebirds

Pair of Eastern Bluebird
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Two of North America’s three bluebirds – western and mountain bluebirds – reside in parts of California.

The western bluebird has a wide range that includes much of the western side of the state throughout the year, with other parts along the southern coast playing host to these beautiful birds in the winter and the northeastern corner of the state a breeding ground only.

Male western bluebirds have the classic bluebird look shared mostly with the eastern bluebird – a bright blue head and wings with a bronzed chest and white belly. Females share the same general pattern but with faded blue, gray, and orange.

Male mountain bluebirds lack the orange, with a beautiful blue wash that ranges from a near-sky blue to a royal moving from the front to the back. Females are gray-brown with blue only on the wing tips and tail.

Both are natives of open spaces from parks to fence lines in areas occupied by people and rural areas alike. Most of the mountain bluebird’s California range is in the northern half of the state. They live year-round in the northeast part of the state and winter in parts of the west and south.

Bushtit and Wrentit

Black-throated Tit bird
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Bushtits and wrentits do not belong to the same taxonomic family, but we’ll include them together based on their similar names and colors.

Bushtits are much smaller, measuring about three inches long, while wrentits are closer to five or six.

Bushtits are chickadee-shaped birds with round little bellies, long tails, and small bills. They have a light-washed underside and a gray back, with gray-brown heads near the Pacific coast. Birds in the interior have lighter gray caps.

Like many other birds we’ll discuss in this list, the bushtit is a primarily western bird, with a spotty Texas range and parts of Central America making up its easternmost reaches.

Bushtits can be seen in parks and other areas frequented by humans but they mostly eat insects, so they aren’t likely to be spotted at your backyard bird feeder.

Chickadees

Black-Capped Chickadee
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North America’s most common chickadee, the black-capped chickadee, is very rarely a Californian and mostly just in the northernmost stretches of the state. The chestnut-backed chickadee and mountain chickadee have a wider range in the Golden State.

Chestnut-backed chickadees are patterned very similarly to black-capped chickadees, but they have two significant differences in color: the chestnut back and sides and their rich brown heads.

The mountain chickadee is primarily a resident of the high regions of the Sierra Nevadas, though it does have a spotty range down to Baja California and up through the western side of the state.

Comparing the mountain chickadee’s facial pattern to black-capped and chestnut-backed chickadees, you’ll notice an additional white stripe above the eye that divides what would be an all-black cap on the aforementioned black-capped chickadee.

Oak Titmouse

Oak Titmouse
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The only one of North America’s five titmice species native to California is the oak titmouse, an aptly named resident of the state’s oak forests. It’s nearly exclusive to California, save for a small part of its range that reaches into Oregon and dips into Baja California.

They lack bright, notable colors, a mostly dingy gray with a short bill and small crest that might feel familiar to those knowledgeable about other common titmice, like the tufted titmouse of the eastern United States.

Next time you’re among the oaks, keep a watchful eye for these sprightly birds and listen for their song:

Nuthatches

Nuthatch
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Red-breasted, white-breasted, and pygmy nuthatches can each be found within California’s borders.

Look for nuthatches in forests, often facing downward, clinging to tree trunks:

White-breasted nuthatches like the one pictured above are year-round Californians across the vast majority of the state.

Pygmy nuthatches are state-wide birds as well, though their range is a little spottier, and California is split between winter and breeding ranges for red-breasted nuthatches.

Red- and white-breasted nuthatches are common birds across much of North America at different parts of the year, and there’s a fourth nuthatch in the American Southeast, the brown-headed nuthatch.

California’s conifer forests are some of the best places to spot the pygmy nuthatch, whose sporadic range dots the American West from Washington and Montana down to Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico.

The little pygmy nuthatch weighs about a third of an ounce and measures between 3.5 and 4.3 inches, according to All About Birds.

They’re blue-gray above with a brown cap and a tan, buffy underside.

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper
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Speaking of little birds that are usually spotted clinging to tree trunks, brown creepers are fun little birds to see. To see one, your best chance is to find large trees and scour their thick trunks for a white belly against a speckled light and brown back.

Sometimes difficult to see, you can also listen for them for a better chance at getting your eyes on one:

The Golden State is pretty well-split between year-round residency for brown creepers and winter-only range, with winter residency in the valleys and year-round sightings along the borders.

Wrens

Wrens in Ohio
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California’s wrens include the rock wren, canyon wren, house wren, Pacific wren, marsh wren, cactus wren, and Bewick’s wren.

The house wren is North America’s most widespread wren. In California, they are breeding residents everywhere but the desert region and they may stick around through the winter in western California.

In the desert, the rock wren and canyon wren are the most likely species, and they both can be seen across much of the rest of the state as well.

The Pacific wren’s limited western range includes parts of the Golden State, and the marsh wren has a small year-round Californian range.

Bewick’s wren, a beautiful bird with a light underside and rich brown wings and cap, which is broken up by a bold white eyebrow stripe, is still holding on in much of California.

Bewick’s wrens used to be common in the eastern United States, but they’ve disappeared in the vast majority of eastern states. Their eastern North American downfall has been most commonly attributed to competition with house wrens.

Gnatcatchers

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher
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Gnatcatchers are fairly closely related to wrens. They’re New World birds of the small family Polioptilidae that feed on a range of insects and spiders, not just gnats.

The blue-gray gnatcatcher is the only gnatcatcher in the eastern United States, making it the most familiar to many people. The other three gnatcatchers in North America – the black-tailed gnatcatcher, the California gnatcatcher, and the black-capped gnatcatcher – have limited ranges.

The black-capped gnatcatcher is not a Californian, with a mostly Mexican base year-round. The black-tailed gnatcatcher can be found in the southeastern desert of California, and despite its name, the California gnatcatcher is mostly a resident of the Baja California peninsula, though they can be found in southwestern California from the Mexican border up to Los Angeles.

Flycatchers

Gray Flycatcher
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Not to be confused with the gnatcatchers are California’s dozen-plus flycatchers.

Among these species are the olive-sided flycatcher, western wood-pewee, willow flycatcher, least flycatcher, Hammond’s flycatcher, gray flycatcher, dusky flycatcher, Pacific-slope flycatcher, Cordilleran flycatcher, black phoebe, Say’s phoebe, Vermilion flycatcher, ash-throated flycatcher, and brown-crested flycatcher.

Many of the flycatcher species are alive green or dull gray, but one notable exception is the vermilion flycatcher, a striking red-orange bird.

They’re rare in southern California, and most commonly spotted year-round in their core range down in Mexico, so seeing one in the United States is an exciting moment. There have been reported sightings up to San Francisco and Sacramento from eBird users, however, so you never know.

Kinglets

Kinglets
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North America’s two kinglets are the ruby-crowned kinglet and golden-crowned kinglet, both residents of California at varying places and times of the year.

They are the only two species in the world with “kinglet” in the name, but the golden-crowned variety shares a genus with the common firecrest, madeira firecrest, flamecrest, and goldcrest.

The ruby-crowned kinglet occupies its own genus, though it is known for its own flaming/fire crest.

Females don’t have the namesake marking and the male’s ruby crown is not always visible. They are olive green birds with yellow striped wings and tail feathers.

Both male and female golden-crowned kinglets have a glowing yellow mohawk.

Golden-crowned kinglets can be found year-round in the Sierras and Shasta Cascade region of eastern California. Ruby-crowned kinglets occupy a similar range during the breeding months and move into the rest of the state as summer turns to fall.

Vireos

Yellow-Throated Vireo
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The word “vireo” comes from a Latin word meaning “green bird,” according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. They’re not as green as a parakeet, for example, but many of them are olive green. Not all of them are, however, such as the gray vireo, which has a spotty range in California.

California’s vireos include Bell’s vireo, gray vireo, Hutton’s vireo, Cassin’s vireo, plumbeous vireo, and the warbling vireo.

Like the gray vireo, the plumbeous vireo is also rare in the state. Bell’s vireos have a limited range in southern California.

The widest California range belongs to the warbling vireo, which breeds in most of the state besides the San Joaquin Valley, though Cassin’s vireo is a close second, just lacking residency in the valley and desert.

Hutton’s vireos are year-round Californians.

Warblers

Prothonotary Warblers

The warblers can be difficult to identify, especially when there are so many of them, often coming in similar colors. There are over 50 wood warblers in North America.

Of those, over a dozen of them either breed or winter in California: the orange-crowned warbler, Lucy’s warbler, Nashville warbler, Virginia’s warbler, MacGillivray’s warbler, common yellowthroat, American redstart, yellow warbler, palm warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, black-throated gray warbler, Townsend’s warbler, hermit warbler and Wilson’s warbler.

The most widespread breeders are the common yellowthroat and yellow warbler, with mentions for the yellow-rumped warbler, MacGillivray’s warbler, orange-crowned warbler, black-throated and gray warbler.

Sparrows

Sparrows in Maine
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Like warblers, there are so many sparrows that it can feel pretty daunting for beginner and experienced birdwatchers alike to get a handle on all of them. It also doesn’t help that the majority are small, brown, and streaky.

You’re probably familiar with the city-faring house sparrows no matter where you live, but as you move out into California’s agricultural fields, marshes, and mountains, 19 sparrow species frequent the state:

They are the grasshopper sparrow, chipping sparrow, black-chinned sparrow, Brewer’s sparrow, black-throated sparrow, lark sparrow, fox sparrow, dark-eyed junco, white-crowned sparrow, golden-crowned sparrow, white-throated sparrow, sagebrush sparrow, Bell’s sparrow, vesper sparrow, Nelson’s sparrow, Savannah sparrow, song sparrow, Lincoln’s sparrow and swamp sparrow.

To learn more about California’s sparrows, including their preferred habitats and how to differentiate between all of them, click here.

Finches

Finche
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A couple of finches are some of the most common species across North America, including the house finch, which can be found just about everywhere in California, from its big cities and suburbs to deserts and open fields.

They’ve also made their way into eastern North America despite not originally being native outside of the Southwest.

There’s also the purple finch, for which the male looks like a house finch dipped in raspberry juice, with richer pink and red coloring.

California also plays host to all three species of North American goldfinches at some point in the year, with lesser goldfinches year-round residents, Lawrence’s goldfinches during breeding months, and American goldfinches in the winter.

Birders in the state also have the opportunity to spot the gray-crowned rosy finch, Cassin’s finch, and pine siskin.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is California’s Smallest Breeding Bird?

The calliope hummingbird is not just California’s smallest breeding bird, but it’s North America’s smallest breeder as well.

It is between 3.1 and 3.5 inches in length and between 2.3 and 3.4 grams in weight, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds.

What Is Colorado’s Biggest Bird?

Not only is California home to North America’s biggest bird – it also lends the California condor its name.

With a 10-foot wingspan, the California condor is a magnificent bird, but it’s a rare one. Fortunately, it’s a species on its way back from extinction’s doorstep.

Down to less than two dozen birds in the ‘80s, all remaining condors were taken into captivity. Since then, they’ve been reintroduced to the wild and have populations in Mexico, California, Utah, and Arizona.

In their namesake state, look for them in the Big Sur area and the mountains outside of Los Angeles.

In Conclusion

What you consider “small” may differ from what we’ve included here. Compared to a bird of prey, a thrush or woodpecker might be considered small, but compared to a warbler, that thrush or woodpecker is going to appear quite large.

With that in mind, there’s plenty more to explore, especially in California. If you’re curious, Wild Bird Scoop has you covered, with more detailed lists of California’s falcons, finches, wrens, ducks, sparrows, hummingbirds, owls, hawks, and woodpeckers.

Happy birding!

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