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Blackbirds in New York including Birds with Black Feathers

There are a lot of black birds (birds with black feathers) to be found in New York, and there are also many types of blackbirds in New York, so to avoid confusion we’re going to combine them both and make this an article on Blackbirds and black birds in New York.

Blackbirds are members of the Icterid family, which includes Orioles, Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, Grackles, and Cowbirds. Black birds are birds with predominantly black plumage. Many icterids have black plumage. You’ll find quite a few of those Icterids in our article “Black Birds in New York”, including the most numerous blackbirds in New York, the Red-winged Blackbird.

For other fun birdwatching in New York see our articles on Owls, Backyard Birds, Hummingbirds, Hawks, and Woodpeckers.

Here’s a listing of 10 species of blackbirds (Icterids) and 20 black birds that you can see throughout New York, along with some fun facts and identification tips.

Blackbirds in New York

1. Red-winged Blackbird

MALE

Scientific Name: Agelaius phoeniceus                       Size: 6.7 to 9.1 inches

Male Red-winged Blackbirds are large black Icterids. They have orange-red patches on their shoulders and long pointed wings. But not all Red-winged Blackbirds have red wings. Some may have yellow or orange epaulets on their wings.

The female red-winged blackbird is striped and brown-streaked in color. She resembles a giant streaked sparrow with a more finch-like, thick bill.

Red-winged blackbirds are usually active during the day but may be seen at night near lights.

A red-winged blackbird’s nest is usually in a marsh or near water, but they have also been found on flat roofs and even in chimneys.

Their nest is made of twigs, grasses, and hair. They are lined with finer grasses, rootlets, or horsehair. The female lays 4 to 6 eggs that are a pale blue-green color. They also have black, brown, and purple speckles all over them. They are incubated by both parents for about 12 days. The young leave the nest after 14 days.

They are known to eat insects and seeds, including corn, wheat, and other grains. They also eat berries from shrubs and trees like elderberry, mulberry, wild grape, or honeysuckle.

The red-winged blackbird is a migratory bird found in New York in fall and winter in large numbers, with a small population that stays year-round. They are very common in many of our backyards as well as in reeds along beaches, marshes, and around lakes. Sometimes you will also find them in urban areas.

The marshes and wetlands throughout New York are hotspots for winter birding and are loaded with Red-winged Blackbirds starting in early spring. You won’t have to travel far to find them.

Interesting Facts

You’ve heard the expression “Birds of a feather flock together”? Always check flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds for Common Grackles, European Starlings, and Brown-headed Cowbirds. These birds are often found together in large flocks.

Red-winged blackbirds can often be heard singing from a perch high in a tree or on power lines.

They have a loud, clear whistle that sounds like “fee-bee” and also various cackling and chattering noises.

call and song

2. Rusty Blackbird

Scientific Name: Euphagus carolinus                              Size: 9 inches

A black bird with rusty feathers, slightly larger and slimmer than Red-winged Blackbird, with a longer tail and slenderer bill than Red-winged. The eye of the Rusty Blackbird is always pale yellow, which stands out.       

Nests can be found in trees and shrubs with water nearby. They start with twigs and grasses and add a layer of rotting, wet leaves and vegetation that hardens as it dries and gives stability to the nest.

While they feed mostly on insects and other plant materials, Rusty Blackbirds have been known to attack and eat other birds.

Look for Rusty Blackbirds in places like wet woodlands, marshes, and bogs. They wade into shallow standing water and can often be found on the edges of wet areas, turning over decomposing leaves in search of insects.

While other Blackbirds like to flock together, Rusty Blackbirds like to stay in much smaller groups.

Interesting Facts

Rusty Blackbird populations are the most rapidly declining in the United States. They are a vulnerable species due to habitat loss.

call and song

3. Common Grackle

common grackle

Scientific Name: Quiscalus quiscula                            Size: 11 to 15.4 inches

The Common Grackle is part of the blackbird family and, as a blackbird species, has iridescent feathers (usually dark blue or purple).

Grackles are often mistaken for crows, but they are much smaller in size and can be distinguished by their long tails and glossy black feathers. They have yellow eyes and their size is larger than a robin. You can often see them in large flocks during the summer months.

They nest in colonies and build their nests in trees and bushes that are at least 3 feet off the ground. The female picks the spot of the nest and mostly builds them too but the male will help her.

Grackles are omnivores and eat small insects, fruits, seeds, and grains. They can often be seen at backyard bird feeders where they will also dine on sunflower seeds and cracked corn.

Being very intelligent birds they sometimes use their beaks to turn over rocks in search of insects. You will also find them find at farm fields where they will eat the seeds from corn and rice.

They can be found throughout the United States in parks, yards, open fields, and wooded areas. They are very adaptable birds that have learned to thrive in cities where they often find food and water.

Grackles can also be heard making a wide range of calls that include whistles and rattling sounds.

Interesting Facts

Grackles are also known as “possum hawks” because they sometimes prey on the eggs of ground-nesting birds like quail, grouse, and pheasants

call and song

4. Boat-tailed Grackle

Scientific Name: Quiscalus major                Size: 14.5 (female) to 16.5 inches (male)

Large blackbird with dark eyes and an elongated tail. Boat-tailed Grackles are coastal birds, and commonly show up in New York in late February.

The all-black male usually has a glossy blue-black iridescence to their plumage; females are much smaller and are a rich reddish brown. They look like a completely different species but still have that extra-long tail.

Boat-tailed Grackles nest in reeds, cattails, and tall grasses around marshes, building their nests high enough from rising waters and predators.

Boat-tailed Grackles are not picky eaters. They dine on crustaceans, mollusks, arthropods, and reptiles, and are not above scavenging food from humans, their pets, and other birds.

Boat-tailed Grackles are seasonal residents of the New York coast. They arrive in Spring and leave in late Summer. They never venture far from salt water (except in Florida, where they are everywhere).

Interesting Facts

Boat-tailed Grackles will often dunk their food (like pet food and rice) in water to soften it before eating.

call and song

5. Brown-headed Cowbird

Scientific Name: Molothrus ater                  Size: 7.5 inches

Chunky, dark-eyed blackbird with short tails and thick bills. Males are shiny black with iridescent brown heads.  Females are brown with light streaks on the belly.

Brown-headed Cowbirds nest in trees, but there is no nest-building involved. Female Brown-headed Cowbirds are parasites – they lay their eggs in the nests of other species. In many cases, larger Cowbird nestlings will push the other species’ eggs or chicks out of the nest. Parasite hosts raise the Cowbird chick as their own.

Seeds, grasses, and insects make up most of the Brown-headed Cowbird’s diet. Females add snails and eggs from nests they parasitize; they need the extra calcium because they lay so many of their eggs in other birds’ nests.

Brown-headed Cowbirds will come to feeders, usually with Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and European Starlings that sometimes overwhelm your yard.

In Winter, Brown-headed Cowbirds can be found among the large flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and European Starlings.

Interesting Facts

Brown-headed Cowbirds got their name by foraging among herds of grazing buffalo and cattle.

The much smaller Yellow Warbler’s nests are targets for Brown-headed Cowbirds, but the Yellow Warbler has figured out a way to deal with this. Since they are too small to just push the Cowbird egg out of the nest, they build another nest on top of the Cowbird egg, smothering it and allowing their eggs to hatch without intruders.

call and song

6. Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole sitting on a branch

Scientific Name: Icterus galbula                  Size: 6.5 to 8 inches

Even though they are much more brightly colored, Orioles are part of the blackbird family. The Baltimore Oriole is probably the easiest to identify of the East Coast orioles, and not just because it happens to be the mascot of that baseball team in Maryland (loved Boog and Brooks and Cal, but I’m a Yankee fan).

The Baltimore Oriole is a medium-sized icterid. The black head and wings, magnificent bright orange body feathers, and yellow underparts on the male Baltimore Oriole are just stunning. The male oriole also has a large patch of orange on the back of its neck and two black spots on each side of its head.

The female oriole has a black patch on the back of her neck and one spot on each side of her head. The female is duller than the male and sometimes appears yellow with a brownish tinge to the black feathers.

The Baltimore oriole nests in the tops of trees, usually elm or maple. It makes its woven, hanging nest from grapevine, bark, and grasses and uses spider silk to tie the whole thing together. The female lays three or four eggs that are pale blue with brown spots. She incubates the eggs for 10 days, and then both parents take turns feeding the nestlings.

The young orioles leave the nest when they are about 12 days old. They continue to be fed by their parents for another 10 to 14 days.

The Baltimore Oriole eats insects and worms. They are also common visitors to feeders, where they will eat fruit (they love oranges!) and suet, grape jelly, and nectar.

Interesting Facts

Baltimore Orioles are the most common oriole seen in New York. They are more likely to be heard than seen, as they prefer the treetops (but if you have grape jelly and oranges…). You’ll know they are around if you memorize their song. Once I hear one, I put out the oriole buffet (Gray Catbirds, Downy Woodpeckers, and the occasional Blue Jay are my other birds that love this spread).

For some odd reason, Baltimore Orioles prefer darker-colored fruit than other fruit-eating species like robins.

Baltimore Orioles are the same colors (black and orange) as those on the family crest of Lord Baltimore, which is how they got their name.

call and song

7. Orchard Oriole

IScientific Name: cterus spurius                   Size: 5.9 to 7.1 inches

The smallest of North America’s orioles.

Male Orchard Orioles are brick red underneath and mostly black on top. Females are yellowish green with two distinctive white wing bars. There is no black on the female, but an immature male will show a black throat, so it is possible to tell them apart from the female. As the young male molts, more of the brick-orange color will appear, until it has full adult plumage.

Orchard Orioles are mostly insectivores but will get fruits when available. They will come to oranges, grape jelly, and even hummingbird feeders (orioles like nectar), but are less likely to be found using them than Baltimore Orioles.

They build the same type of hanging nests as Baltimore Orioles, woven sacks suspended high up in the trees. Unlike many other songbirds, they don’t mind other birds nesting near them.

Up is a good place to search for these birds, as they prefer the tops of trees to hang out in.

In New York, you can find Orchard Orioles from about April to July. They are early migrants, heading back down to Mexico, Central, and the Caribbean.

Interesting Facts

Orchard Orioles prefer to migrate at night. This enables them to avoid predators and steer clear of bad weather.

call and song

8. European Starling

Scientific Name: Sturnus vulgaris                Size: 8.5 inches

Vocal mimics of other birds and considered pests by many, the European Starling, like the Mute Swan, is an invasive species that has a strong foothold in the United States and is here for good.

Even though they are much despised, the European Starling is a handsome bird, with its iridescent, varying plumage and amazing maneuvers in the sky known as murmurations.

Starlings can change their plumage from spotted and white to glossy and dark without molting. New feathers growing in provide the white “spots” and fade as they get old, reverting the Starling to an all-black bird.

Anywhere you look, there are Starlings. They are in the woods, sitting on telephone wires over fields, and roosting in trees in an urban neighborhood.

Starlings are foragers and can be found on the ground, usually in flocks of mixed birds like Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Robins and Crows, and even sparrows and pigeons (we birders prefer “Rock Pigeon” – go ahead, it’s on your New York state checklist).

If you see a huge flock of birds in the trees at night, most of them are probably European Starlings. You can’t get away from them. And they will swarm and empty your feeders rather quickly.

Interesting Facts

One of the most spectacular sights in the avian world is a murmuration of European Starlings. A ribbon of blackbirds twisting, turning, and undulating as one across the sky is a sight to be seen.

European Starlings were brought to the New World by a group who wanted to have all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works right here in America. The origin of all those Starlings everywhere across the country was 100 birds set loose in New York City’s Central Park in the 1890s.

There are more than 200 million of them at this time.

call and song

9. Eastern Meadowlark

Scientific Name: Sturnella magna                               Size: 7.5 to 10 inches

Despite their name, Eastern Meadowlarks are not members of the Lark family – they are Icterids just like Red-winged Blackbirds and Baltimore Orioles. They are year-round residents of New York, but the loss of habitat has lessened their numbers in the state.

A medium-sized songbird, Eastern Meadowlarks have bright yellow breasts with black chest chevrons that make them stand out from other birds among the grasslands and farm fields of New York. You can find them perched on tall grasses and posts throughout open fields, singing their beautiful songs.

In flight, Eastern Meadowlarks show a dark back and white stripes on either side of their tails.

While you can find them in fields and meadows during the warmer months, in winter look for them on farm fields, especially where crops have been cut down, foraging for corn and seeds among the dirt.

Interesting Facts

Although they can sing over 100 different songs, one of the most common songs sounds like they’re singing their name. Listen in fields for something that sounds like “eastern – meadowlark!”

Eastern Meadowlarks are prime victims of habitat loss; less grassland means fewer Meadowlarks. They have been declining all over their range. In New York, they are most likely to be found in rural areas, where there are still open meadows and fields for them to forage.

call and song

10. Bobolink

Scientific Name: Dolichonyx oryzivorus                    Size: 7 inches

Adult breeding Bobolink males are solid black with a cream-colored nape of the neck and extensive white patches around the shoulders, on the back, and rump. The rump patch is visible in flight.

Female Bobolinks are buffy overall with brown striping on the wings, large pink bills, and pale napes.

You can tell females and non-breeding male Bobolinks from sparrows by the Bobolink’s pointed wings, pale nape, and habits.

Bobolinks are ground nesters. They usually build their nests in mildly wet soil, clearing away any vegetation and making a depression in the mud. They line this first with dead grass and stems, later adding softer grasses inside.

Bobolinks are seed eaters except when they add insects to their diet to aid their growing chick’s protein intake during the breeding season. They eat grains, oats, both wild and domesticated rice, and seeds, with an occasional spider thrown in.                               

The Bobolink prefers open fallow fields, tallgrass prairies, hayfields, meadows, and reed beds.

Interesting Facts

Bobolink flight calls sound very metallic and mechanical, similar to R2-D2 from Star Wars.

call and song

rare Blackbirds in New York

While there have been reports and sightings throughout the state, both Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Brewer’s Blackbirds, along with the occasional Western Meadowlark, are rare visitors to the Empire State. Once the sighting hits the wire, you’ll find large groups of bird watchers flocking to get a glimpse of these passerines passing through.

Where to see blackbirds in New York

In late Spring and all through Summer, you can find these birds in so many places that there are way too many to list here.

Regarding Boat-tailed Grackles, the barrier beaches and other marshy areas of Long Island’s Atlantic shore are great locations to find these noisy birds.

European Starlings are now common backyard birds here, so look on wires surrounding the local parking lot, silhouetted in the tops of trees at the end of the day, or on a local bird feeding station to find them.

Good resources are organizations like New York Audubon and its many local chapters, whose websites contain links to places all over the state. You can also find most of these birds at the National Wildlife Refuges throughout the state.

Another good source is eBird. They have maps and tons of information on when and where the birds are being seen.

I may have missed a blackbird or two, but this is a good start to finding and seeing the icterids that visit New York.

Black Birds in New York

Here’s a listing of 20 species of black birds that you can see throughout New York, along with some fun facts and identification tips.

There are a lot of birds with black plumages to be found in New York. Black-plumaged birds run from the obvious Crows to Sea Ducks and birds of prey. Yes, and some of the blackbirds listed above too. I’ve removed those from this second set because we’ve already covered them.

11. American Coot

Scientific Name: Fulica americana         Size: inches to 17 inches

A duck-like bird found everywhere you would find ducks, American Coots are considered waterfowl, just like ducks. While they float like ducks on the water, on land the American Coot is quite a different bird than the ducks they like to hang around with.

American Coots are squat, plump little waterbirds with black or dark gray plumage, rounded heads, sloping white bills, and red eyes. Their legs are yellow and their toes are exceptionally large for their body size and lobed, which helps them move around in the water. On land, they appear chicken-like.

These birds like freshwater wetlands, preferring ones with lots of aquatic vegetation along their shores and at least some deep water to swim around it.

Interesting Facts

American Coots are more closely related to rails and cranes than to ducks. Coots are not graceful flyers. Like the rest of the Gruiformes (Common Gallinules, formerly known as Common Moorhen, and Purple Gallinules, they are awkward in flight. They are often seen beating

Call

12. American Crow

American Crow in a tree

Scientific Name: Corvus brachyrhynchos          Size: 15.8-20.9 inches

The American Crow is not a crow at all – It is a raven, but it has been called the “American Crow” for many years. This all-black bird has shiny feathers. The bill is also black with a hook on the end. The male is slightly glossier than the female. Both species have fairly short, squared tails.

They are intelligent, wary, and pretty much found everywhere in the country. Crows have a very distinctive flight pattern, a meticulous, constant flapping with very few glides in between.

The American Crow doesn’t breed until it’s between 2 and 4 years old. The “family” stays together for years, so some of the “kids” will help raise the next year’s brood.

Their nests are in large trees mostly evergreens. Both the male and female will make the nest out of large twigs lined with pine needles. The nest is big around 15 inches across and 7 to 10 inches deep.

They usually lay 3 to 9 eggs which are bluish-green in color with gray and brown blotches at either end. The incubation period is 16 to 18 days, and the young remain in the nest anywhere from 20 to 40 days.

American Crows will eat just about anything including seeds, nuts, worms, and small animals such as mice. They will also steal and eat eggs from other birds like robins, sparrows, loons, jays, and eiders. They will even eat garbage from the dumps.

The American Crow can be seen throughout the United States but they differ in size by region. In Florida, the American Crow is smaller but has large feet. Some Northeastern crows are as large as Ravens, and there is also an overlap where Fish Crows are found.

Interesting Facts

All members of the Corvid family are smart and adept at making and using tools. American Crows have been known to use bits of wood, leaves, and string to fashion problem-solving tools.

And Crows remember faces. A famous experiment had some students on a college campus walking around in a mask, harassing the local Crows, while an unmasked group walked the same pathways without bothering the crows. One year later, wearing the mask got the professor mobbed by crows as he walked to class, showing that the Crow’s remembered who their enemies were.

How to tell an American Crow from a Common Raven? One way is by voice – Crows have a “caw” while Ravens’ caws are more like croaks. The other is to look at the tail if you can. American Crow has a squared-off, short tail while Raven tails are more diamond-shaped.

call and rattle

13. Fish Crow

Fish crow by the sea

Scientific Name Corvus ossifragus                   Size: 14-16 inches

While most of the United States sees the ubiquitous American Crow year-round, in the eastern United States there are two species of Crow to notice – the American Crow, and the Fish Crow.

Fish Crows can be found along the coastal areas of the eastern United States, and occasionally partially inland. Fish Crows look exactly like American Crows. When you’re hanging out at the beach, how do you know what kind of crow you’re looking at? Just listen.

American Crows have their distinctive “caw”; Fish Crows do too, but they sound nasal, as if they have a cold, often utilizing a double “caw”. This is the best way to tell the two species apart, as everything written above about American Crows applies to Fish Crows, except for their preferred habitat – Fish Crows like the beach, marshes, lakes, and anywhere near water.

Interesting Facts

Another way to tell Fish and American Crows apart is if they’re perched on a thin wire, they’re probably Fish Crows.

If they find a good food source, Fish Crows stash away some of it for later use.

call and song

14. Common Raven

Scientific Name: Corvus corax                Size: 24 inches

Ravens are large, solid black birds with long, wedge-shaped tails and elongated narrow wings, and heavy bills. They are larger than their American and Fish Crow cousins.

They can appear hawk-like in flight. Common Ravens are acrobatic flyers, which helps when they are eluding the smaller birds that mob and chase them in flight.

They have a very harsh and deep “caw” that’s more of a croak and clack their bills.

Common Ravens are formidable predators. You will often see them chased and harassed by other birds, including Crows.

Ravens are not picky. They will eat anything they come across. One odd place to find Common Ravens is at garbage dumps and dumpsters behind stores. They are also fond of building their nests on towers.

Common Ravens are formidable predators. From mice to birds as large as herons, to eggs and carrion, they dine on it all. This is why you will often see them chased and harassed by other birds, including Crows.

Common Ravens are found from the mountains to the beaches and everywhere in between. They don’t mind humans and can be found in rural areas, farms, and even in some suburban locations.

Interesting Facts

Ravens are highly intelligent and adept at solving complicated puzzles. They have been guarding the Tower of London for years.

call and song

15. Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored)

Scientific Name: Junco hyemalus                        Size: 5.1 to 6.9 inches

Found all across the United States in some variation or another, the Dark-eyed Junco was at one time a group of similar birds (Slate-colored, Oregon, Pink-sided, Red-backed, Gray-headed, White-winged, and Dark-eyed) that were determined to be the same DNA, so all the variations were combined under the name “Dark-eyed Junco”.

Part of the sparrow branch of the avian tree, Juncos are flitty, flashy little birds with white feathers on the outsides of their tails, making them easy to spot while moving in the underbrush. They are one of the most abundant forest birds in North America, and love visiting your feeders when they’re around. They are also one of the most common backyard birds to come to your yard in winter.

Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored) are black on top and gray underneath, with white feathers along the sides of their tails that flash when in flight. Like sparrows, they don’t walk when on the ground – they hop. In the eastern and middle sections of the US, they are the snowbirds – they are usually the earliest of the winter migrants to arrive and the first to leave when the weather warms.

Interesting Facts

These guys move like the wind. They are often found in mixed flocks with other sparrows, kinglets, and chickadees going from tree to tree (or feeder to feeder). They love your birdseed and may be the most abundant species seen in your yard during winter.

call and song

16. Pileated Woodpecker

Scientific Name: Dryocopus pileatus                             Size: 16.5 inches

Large woodpecker almost the size of a crow, all black body with white stripes down a long neck and a bright red crest on top of the head and a white under-wing and white wing patch easily seen in flight.

Pileated Woodpeckers fly in fairly straight lines, unlike other woodpecker species, who fly in undulating lines.

These are noisy, loud woodpeckers. Their drum is slow and powerful, accelerates, and then trails off, not more than two times a minute.

Pileated Woodpeckers drill out cavities in trees. They like Carpenter Ants, so they’re often found foraging at the bottoms of dead trees or on fallen logs.

Habitat-wise, they like mature hardwood forests and woodlands. Pileated Woodpeckers hunt for dead trees and logs, which provide them with both food and a nest cavity.

Interesting Facts

Pileated Woodpecker holes are rectangular rather than round or oval like other woodpeckers, and they are deep enough to break smaller trees in half. Nothing excavates a tree like a Pileated.

Oddly enough, this was the inspiration for Woody Woodpecker.

call and drumming

17. Glossy Ibis

Scientific Name: Plegadis falcinellus        Size: 23 Inches              Wingspan: 36 inches

The more common Ibis in the Northeast, the Glossy Ibis is a totally black wading bird with a distinctive down-curving bill and iridescent, glossy plumage.

Adult non-breeding birds are black with dark heads, necks, and backs. Breeding birds are a blend of black and other colors. While Glossy Ibises appear to be black from a distance, a close look in good light will show maroon, bronze, and even emerald and violet along with the shiny black feathers. 

Glossy Ibis nest in colonies like other herons in low trees. They build bulky nests from reeds, sticks, and twigs.

Glossy Ibis forage among muddy pools and marshes in search of aquatic prey. They stir up the marsh pools, often attracting other waders like Snowy Egrets, who eat the small fish disturbed by the Ibises.

They forage by both sight and touch, usually on the falling tide, eating everything from insects, mollusks, crabs, crayfish, snails, fish, and amphibians to snakes.

Glossy Ibises are found in freshwater, brackish, and saltwater marshes. They are often found in small groups mixed in with other herons and waders.

Interesting Facts

In flight, Glossy Ibises have a rather prehistoric silhouette, with their long necks and legs outstretched, and their distinctive long, down-curving bill leading the way.

call

18. Black Scoter      

Scientific Name: Melanitta nigra                Size: 19 inches

The Black Scoter is the smallest and most compact of the Scoter family. Look for them anywhere along the coast during the winter months.

They are dark sea ducks with short bills, usually found floating in rafts on the open salt water, often mixed in with White-winged Scoter and Long-tailed Ducks.

Males have yellow-orange bills and are all black; females are dark with whitish patches on the face and cheeks.

Black Scoters dive for clams and other crustaceans.

Interesting Facts

Scoters are very vocal, making a whistling sound that carries over the water.

call, song, wing noise

19. White-winged Scoter

Scientific Name: Melanitta fusca                                          Size:  21 inches

The largest Scoter, they are usually found in large rafts floating along with other members of the Scoter family. White-winged Scoters have a long bill and somewhat concave head.

Seasonal visitors to the East Coast, White-winged Scoters are found in winter months wherever the water is cold, and the water in New York is certainly cold in winter.

Males are black on top over a dark brown body, with a distinctive white “comma” below their eyes. The bills are orange and slightly puffed close to the head.

Female White-winged Scoters are dark brownish-black. Like the other female Scoters, they have two white patches on the face, one behind the eye and the other on the face between the eyes.

The white speculum on both sexes is an easy identification mark, not only when they are on the wing, but also when diving or sitting in the water.

Interesting Facts

White-winged Scoters are usually found in mixed rafts along with Black Scoters. The male White-winged Scoter’s eye comma stands out, so if you count all the black ducks with white eye markings, the rest of the Scoters in the group must be Black Scoters. (This tip is courtesy of a waterfowl census-taker).

call

20. Surf Scoter

Scientific Name: Melanitta perspicillata                   Size: 20 inches

These are the Scoters found closest to shore and the easiest to identify. Look for them in winter months anywhere there are waves and swells for them to frolic in.

Surf Scoter males are all black with a white patch on the forehead and a larger one on the nape of the neck. They have heavy triangular, multi-colored, bulbous bills that stand out among the sea ducks. 

Male Surf Scoter bills appear orange from afar but are black, white, red, and yellow. They are wider and puffier at the top and taper towards the tip, making their heads look like a wedge.

The female Surf Scoter has two white patches on her face, one in the front being long and narrow

while the other sits behind and beneath the eye. 

Surf Scoter like to be where the breaking waves are, so they are usually the Scoter found closest to shore. They dive for crustaceans, mollusks, small fish, and aquatic vegetation.

Interesting Facts

An old name for the Surf Scoter used to be “Skunk Head”.

First-winter males do not have the large, protruding bill of mature adults.

call and wing noise

21. Turkey Vulture

Scientific Name: Cathartes aura      Size: 26 to 28 inches         Wingspan: 67 to 72 inches

Large black birds with red, naked heads. Flight is distinctive: wings are raised in the dihedral (U-shaped) and they rock their bodies from side to side. The underside of the wings shows white all around, with a solid black body in the center; wingtips (fingers) are spread out in flight.

They are often found in big kettles, with an occasional Black Vulture or two in the mix. Turkey Vultures nest on the ground in crevices or hollow logs. They may also utilize abandoned heron and hawk nests. The Turkey Vulture’s sole source of sustenance is carrion. Turkey Vultures cruise overhead on thermals, rising early to search for dead things.

Turkey Vultures roost high in trees or on structures. They can be found almost anywhere in Delaware. Look for large pines or dead trees along the water, where they can be found at dusk hanging out.

Turkey Vultures like company, so a roost can sometimes contain 30-40 birds.

Interesting Facts

A flight of vultures is called a kettle.  Turkey Vultures can smell their food while circling high above the ground.

Call, hatching, and nesting

22. Black Vulture

Scientific Name: Coragyps atratus         Size:22 to 25 inches      Wingspan: 54 to 59 inches

All black birds with dark, naked heads. Flight differs from Turkey Vulture, flying higher and straighter and not in the dihedral. It does not rock side to side like the Turkey Vulture. The underside of their wings shows white at the wrist (tips of wings), with the fingers outspread. The tail is also shorter than Turkey Vulture.

Black Vultures nest in crevices, hollow logs, and caves, laying their eggs directly on the ground.

Black Vultures are carrion eaters. They only eat dead things. They ride the thermals, going up a bit later in the day than Turkey Vulture and flying higher up, in search of the dead and dying.

Black Vultures are often found mixed in with Turkey Vultures. They roost in trees or on tall poles, usually close to water or any structure that generates thermals.

Interesting Facts

A Black Vulture’s sense of smell is not as keen as their Turkey Vulture cousins, so they soar above the Turkey Vultures and watch them so that when the Turkey Vultures find food, the Black Vultures follow them down to the carcass. Black Vultures are opportunists and may also be found scrounging around the local dump.

call and wing beats

23. Double-Crested Cormorant

Double-created Cormorant

Scientific Name: Phalacrocorax auratus              Size: 33 inches.            Wingspan: 52 inches

Large black birds with black legs, webbed black feet, and orange chin patches. Juvenile birds usually have pale necks and breasts.

The “double crest” can only be seen on the backs of their heads during the breeding season.

Double-crested Cormorants roost in tall trees, on posts and rocks. They build large and bulky nests out of sticks and other materials, including bits of rope and other garbage.

Double-crested Cormorants are fish eaters. They dive constantly in search of fish, only stopping to dry off their feathers.

Double-crested Cormorants can be found on or near water, either on larger freshwater bodies or salt water.

They are often found sitting in trees, posts, and on rocks with their wings outstretched.

Cormorant feathers lack the waterproofing of other diving birds and become waterlogged. This is why they sit lower in the water. They have to come out to dry off before they can get back into the water again.

Interesting Facts

If you see a flock of large dark birds flying in V-formation, if they stay in the V then they are geese or ducks. For some strange reason, Cormorants can’t seem to hold a V-formation for very long. They are just not cut out for precision flight.

call and song

24. Great Cormorant

Great Cormorant

Scientific Name: Phalacrocorax carbo       Size: 36 inches            Wingspan: 47 to 63 inches

Adult birds are all black with white throats and yellowish chin patches. Breeding Great Cormorants show a white hip patch, a good field mark for a bird in flight. Note their black legs and large black webbed feet.

Immature birds have brown heads and necks with white bellies.

Great Cormorants nest on rocky islands and cliffs along the Delaware coast. The nests are constructed out of marine materials and sticks brought to the female by the male. The nests can be as wide as 18 or more inches and around 8 inches high.

Great Cormorants are fish eaters, diving up to 100 feet down to catch fish in their hooked bills.

Great Cormorants like rocky coastlines and are often found perched on jetty light towers, breakwaters, large boulders, and rocky coastal islands. They are strictly sea birds and are usually not found in freshwater.

Interesting Facts

All of the Cormorant family tend to face into the wind, with the sun at their backs, when they are drying out their feathers. This enables their outstretched wings and body feathers to dry faster so they can get back to diving for food.

call and song

How to tell a Great Cormorant from a Double-crested Cormorant

Great Cormorants are the largest of the Cormorants.  They are heavier-bodied than the smaller Double-crested. Juvenile Great Cormorants have white bellies, as opposed to the dark bellies of the Double-crested cormorant juveniles, and also have shorter tails than the Double-crested.

Adult Greats have a white hip patch in the breeding season, which is lacking in the Double-crested.

In addition, Great Cormorants have white throats with yellow chin patches, whereas Double-crested Cormorants have orange throats and don’t have white necks.

25. Common Murre

Scientific Name: Uria aalge                    Size: 17.5 inches

Common Murres are Alcids, birds that spend the majority of their time on open ocean waters rather than land. Like most alcids, their feet are further back than land-dwelling birds, making them awkward walkers. In the water, however, they are graceful swimmers, flying through the waters on strong, streamlined wings.

Common Murres look like they are wearing tuxedos. Like most alcids, they are solid black on top and white underneath.

If you’re thinking penguins, you’ve got a good idea of what the Common Murre looks like in breeding plumage.

Non-breeding adults and immatures have black caps with white cheeks and necks.

While their legs are a hindrance on land, in water they act like a ship’s rudder, steering and propelling them along the ocean surface with grace and speed.

Common Murres nest in groups on rocky cliffs and headlands near the ocean. They don’t build a nest, laying a single egg on the cliff itself: on a ledge, in a crevice, or underneath a large boulder. Common Murres may build pebble circles around their “nests”.     

Common Murres eat fish, also taking squid and octopus when they can. They are excellent divers, “flying” through the water propelled by their wings. Common Murres may hunt in small flocks, normally diving about 100 feet to catch their prey, sometimes much deeper.

Common Murres are members of the Alcid family and are ocean foragers. They tend to prefer areas where warm and cold ocean currents meet to hunt for food.

They also tend to swim and fly in straight lines. Like most alcids, being heavy-bodied birds, they need a little help on takeoff. They can be seen churning up the waters and “running” across the swells to get airborne.

Interesting Facts

The eggs are unusual as they are very narrow (almost pointed) at one end and broad and round at the other. The eggs roll around in a circular pattern, ensuring that they won’t roll out of the “nest” and off the cliff.

call and song

26. Thick-billed Murre

Scientific Name: Uria lomvia                   Size: 18 inches

Thick-billed Murres are members of the Alcid family. They spend the majority of their time on open ocean waters rather than land. Like most alcids, their feet are further back than land-dwelling birds, making them awkward walkers, but not as awkward as the other alcid species.

 On the ocean, however, they are graceful swimmers, flying through the waters on strong, streamlined wings.

Thick-billed Murres also have that tuxedo penguin look. They are solid black on top and white underneath. There’s also a slight white gape (space where the bill opens) that can sometimes be seen.

Non-breeding adults and immatures have black caps with white throats. Compared to Common    Murre, their bills are much thicker.

While their legs are a hindrance on land, in water they act like a ship’s rudder, steering and propelling them along the ocean surface with grace and speed.

Thick-billed Murres breed in the high Arctic and pair for life. They built their nests on rocky cliffs and headlands near the ocean. Nests are made from piles of rocks and debris stuck together with guano (bird poop). This keeps the egg from falling out of the nest and rolling off the cliff. Thick-billed Murres pack themselves tightly into their nesting sites, with just a bare minimum of space between them.

Thick-billed Murres are fish eaters, taking fish, squid, crustaceans, and annelids. They are excellent divers, “flying” through the water propelled by their strong wings, and have been observed diving 600 + feet in search of food.

They also tend to swim and fly in straight lines. Like most alcids, being heavy-bodied birds, they need a little help on takeoff. They can be seen churning up the waters and “running” across the swells to get airborne.

Interesting Facts

The young of the Thick-billed Murre is fearless. They plunge off their nest cliffs to the sea below even before they learn how to fly, with one of their parents guiding them along the way and bringing them food until they can forage for themselves.

call and song

27. Razorbill

Razorbill

Scientific Name: Alca torda                     Size: 26 inches

Razorbills are stocky alcids with a prominent black bill.

Both males and females are black above and white below (yes, the tuxedo thing again). In breeding plumage, there are thin white strips around the face and bill, and the throats and faces are solid black. Non-breeding plumage loses the bill line and the lower jaw and throat fade to white.

The underwing is white and noticeable in flight.

Razorbills don’t breed until they are around 4-5 years old. Their nests are built in cliff crevices, on ledges or underneath large rocks, on islands, mainland cliffs, or rocky coastlines. If good nesting spots are not available, they will make one out of small rocks and grass. There is usually only one egg in the nest.

Razorbill chicks leave their nests with a full set of flight feathers. They follow their parent to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Using their feathers to slow their descent, they flutter down to the sea where the parent is waiting to swim away with the chicks in tow.

Razorbills love fish, with the occasional crustacean and marine worms for variety. Favorite fish includes herring, sand lance, and cod. They forage for their food while swimming underwater, usually up to 20 feet down but may dive to 30 feet below or more.

Razorbills are found on the open ocean, except when nesting, where they prefer sea cliffs. They are often seen on offshore shoals and ledges.

While they are mostly found in Iceland and the Gulf of Maine, Razorbills are visible from shore in winter along the Atlantic Coast. In New York, look for them from the beaches, breakwaters, and jetties all along the coast.

Interesting Facts

Whenever winter sends cold currents southward, Razorbills will follow. They have been seen and reported as far south as Florida.

The French name for the Razorbill is “Petit Pengouin” (Little Penguin).

call and song

28. Dovekie

Scientific Name: Alle alle                        Size: 8.25 inches

Another black and white alcid, but a small, chunky one. Adult breeding birds are solid black with a white underbelly, white stripes on their shoulders, and a white stripe across their rump. The bill is very short and stubby, giving them a squashed-in face.

Non-breeding adults have a white patch on their rumps and a black collar against a white throat and neck.

Dovekies have long wings with dark underwings and dark eyes. They are very fast flyers, and their size makes them look like a black and white ball zooming across the ocean.

Dovekies nest up to three feet inside crevices on rocky cliffs and islands. The nests consist of a ring of pebbles sometimes lined with grass or lichens.

Dovekies eat plankton, marine invertebrates, and small fish.

Living in the High Arctic presents certain challenges. Dovekies prefer rocky coastal islands and cliffs, and also along the edges of sea ice, utilizing the nooks and crevices as protection from fierce winds and predators.

Interesting Facts

Dovekies are rare visitors from the High Arctic, only coming down in winter. On occasion, they will get blown close to shore by storms and prevailing winds.

Call and Song

29. Black Guillemot

Scientific Name: Cepphus grylle                          Size: 13 inches

A duck-sized, round-bodied alcid, found in pairs or small groups along cold, rocky shorelines. These alcids are occasional visitors to New York.

Adult breeding birds are solid black with a predominant white wing patch. Non-breeding birds and mostly white with dark backs and rumps (the white wing patch still stands out).

No matter what plumage they are in, all birds have black bills, white underwings, and red legs and feet.

Black Guillemot nest on rocky coasts, usually in cliff crevices above the high tide mark. They may also utilize tree roots and old puffin burrows.

While small fish captured and eaten underwater are the mainstays of the Black Guillemot diet, they also prey on a wide variety of marine life, including jellyfish, sponges, worms, squid, mollusks, and small crustaceans.

Black Guillemots are found along rocky coasts close to shore. They like to forage in cold waters, diving for food on shallow sea floors.

While the Maine coast is the best place to find Black Guillemots, they do occasionally show up in New York waters during the winter. Look in inlets and around jetties (Montauk and Shinnecock Inlets are good locations for them).

Interesting facts

It is believed that the Black Guillemot got its name from the French for “William” (Guillaume).

Call and Song

30. Common Loon

Loon

  Scientific Name: Gavia immer            Size: 32 inches with a 46-inch wingspan

Large water bird with heavy, thick bills, distinctive breeding plumage, and eerie, yodeling call.

Common Loons have long, heavy bodies and are usually found on lakes all across Delaware. They are striking birds, with their all-black heads, red eyes, black neck ring on the black-and-white striped neck, and a stunning checkerboard patterned back, this is a breathtakingly beautiful bird!

In winter, their plumage changes to blackish-gray and white and they go from inland to large lakes and coastal waters.

In flight, Common Loons look like they are trailing two large wooden spoons behind them – those are their feet, which stick out behind. They also need a runway to take off, just like a jumbo jet.

Loons only come on land to mate and lay eggs. The nests are built in quiet areas, often on small islands in larger lakes. Common Loons have difficulty maneuvering on land because their legs are more suited to underwater propulsion than walking, being so far back on their bodies, that they construct their nests close to the shore or riverbank.

Common Loons will also utilize manmade nesting platforms if provided.

In summer, in freshwater, the Common Loon’s fishes of choice are sunfish and perch. In winter, on the ocean, it’s a seafood buffet. Loons are consummate water birds and are amazing swimmers, moving like a submarine underwater but way more maneuverable. They can turn on a dime, using their powerful legs to propel them underwater in pursuit of prey.

Clear lakes, rivers, and streams are the Common Loon’s main habitat, with saltwater shorelines, large lakes, and reservoirs their locations of choice in winter.

Interesting facts

Common Loons are one of the birds that show symptoms of lead poisoning. Old fishing tackle is the cause, and the reason for many bans on the use of lead in some sporting equipment, mostly fishing tackle and birdshot. 

Call and Song

Where to see these black birds in New York

In late Spring and all through Summer, you can find these birds in so many places that there are way too many to list here. Good resources are organizations like New York Audubon and their numerous local chapters, whose website contains links to places all over the state. You can also find most of these birds at the 5 National Wildlife Refuges in the state. There’s also Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Broad Channel (Queens), which is a great year-round place to see birds.

Another good source is eBird. They have maps and tons of information on when and where the birds are being seen.

In Fall and especially Winter, look at saltwater shorelines for visiting sea birds. There is nothing like the beach in winter for tranquility and great winter birds!

Places like the Atlantic Coast, Long Island Sound, and large rivers and harbors are perfect locations to search for sea ducks and alcids.

While a spotting scope is an awesome tool for doing sea watches, a decent pair of binoculars will help you locate these awesome birds, especially those species that like being close to shore.

Hint – check the winds before heading out to look for alcids and sea ducks. If it’s windy, look at marinas and harbors and sheltered areas to find them. They like the calm water just as much as the rough stuff.

I’m sure I may have missed a blackbird or a black bird or two, but this is a good start to finding and seeing these birds in New York.

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