Blackbirds in North Carolina Including Birds with Black Feathers

There are a lot of blackbirds and birds with black feathers to be found in North Carolina. We’re going to combine these two topics into one article and call it Blackbirds in North Carolina Including Birds with Black Feathers.

Blackbirds (one word) are members of the Icterid family, which includes Orioles, Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, Grackles, and Cowbirds. Black birds (two words) are birds with predominantly black plumage. Many icterids have black plumage. No matter how you look it up, searching “blackbirds” or “black birds” gets you the same results, so…

Here’s a listing of 11 species of blackbirds (Icterids) and 18 black birds that you can see throughout North Carolina, along with some fun facts and identification tips.

For other birdwatching in North Carolina see our articles on backyard birds, owls, woodpeckers, hawks, and ducks.

1. Red-winged Blackbird

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.

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 with black, brown, and purple speckles all over them.

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 that is found in North Carolina 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 reeds along beaches, marshes, and around lakes. They have even been found in urban areas.

The marshes and wetlands throughout North Carolina are hotspots for winter birding and are loaded with Red-winged Blackbirds. You won’t have to travel far to find them.

Bird Notes

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.

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.

Bird Notes

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. Brewer’s Blackbird


Scientific Name: Euphagus cyanocephalus                   Size: 8 inches

Male Brewer’s Blackbirds are medium-sized birds with entirely black plumage. They have a glossy purple-blue iridescence to their heads, a metallic green sheen on their bodies, and pale eyes.

They stand out when seen in sunlight. The glossy combination of black, dark blue, and metallic green feathers gleams brilliantly in full sun. Female Brewer’s Blackbirds are dark gray with dark eyes and while they have some blue-green iridescence on their bodies, are nowhere as noticeable as the males.

Both sexes have sharply pointed bills.

Brewer’s Blackbirds usually nest in trees but may also build a nest on the ground in taller grasses. The nest is a bulky cup made of twigs, grass, and pine needles lined with soft grass and animal hair.

Brewer’s Blackbirds feed on mostly insects and seeds. In summer, they seek out berries for a change of pace. The birds forage in shallow water and fields searching for food and have been observed following farm machinery to see what has been turned up.

Bird Notes

Brewer’s Blackbirds resemble Common Grackles. How to tell the difference? Look at heads and tails. Common Grackles are larger birds, with long tails and thicker bills. And male Common Grackles have a blue sheen to their heads while the Brewer’s Blackbirds display a purple sheen.

Call and Song

4. 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 and are often found 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.

Grackles are very intelligent birds that sometimes use their beaks to turn over rocks in search of insects. You will also find them at farm fields where they G known as “possum hawks” because they sometimes prey on the eggs of ground-nesting birds like quail, grouse, and pheasants.

Call and Song

5. 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 live in North Carolina year-round. They are common, everywhere, and very loud and noisy.

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 never venture far from salt water, in North Carolina they are found all along the coast.

Bird Notes

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

Call and Song

Tip – How to tell the three Grackle species apart

Common Grackles are the smallest of the three. Compared to the Boat-tailed and Great-tailed, their tails are much shorter.

Boat-tailed Grackles are larger than Common Grackles but smaller than Great-tailed Grackles. Atlantic Coast Boat-tailed Grackles have yellow eyes; in Florida their eyes are brown.  Along the eastern Gulf Coast, the predominant eye color is yellowish, but brown along the western Gulf.

Great-tailed Grackles are larger than Boat-tailed Grackles. Their tails are long and keel-shaped. They have yellow eyes. Boat-tailed Grackles are not found in North Carolina, but you may run across them in your travels in Florida and along the Gulf Coast.

If you’re seeing Boat-tailed and Great-tailed Grackles in the same view, the Great-tailed is always the largest one (but remember that the female Great-tailed Grackle is smaller than the male).

When in doubt, there’s usually a “Boat-tailed Grackle/Great-tailed Grackle” or “Grackle sp” on most birding checklists.

6. 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.

Most of the Brown-headed Cowbird’s diet comprises weeds, grasses, and insects. 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.

Brown-headed Cowbirds can be found pretty much everywhere except in heavy forests. They got their name by foraging among herds of grazing buffalo and cattle.

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

Bird Notes

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

7. Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole sitting on a branch

Scientific Name: Icterus galbula                 Size: 6.5 to 8 inches

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. 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 pale blue eggs with brown spots.

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.

Baltimore Orioles are more likely to be heard than seen, (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 other birds that love this spread).

Bird Notes

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

8. Orchard Oriole


Scientific Name: Icterus 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 North Carolina, you can find Orchard Orioles from about April to July. They are early migrants, heading back down to Mexico, Central, and the Caribbean.

Bird Notes

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

Call and Song

9. 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 probably 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 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 North Carolina 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.

Bird Notes

One of the most spectacular sights in the avian world is a murmuration of 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

10. 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 North Carolina, 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 in North Carolina’s grasslands and farm fields. 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.

Bird Notes

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 North Carolina, 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

11. 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 during breeding season when they add insects to their diet to aid their growing chick’s protein intake. 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.

Bird Notes:

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

Call and Song

Rare Blackbirds in North Carolina

Bronzed Cowbirds and Shiny Cowbirds can be found in North Carolina (Bronzed in Morehead City and James City); Shiny is more of a vagrant, and not always easy to find.  This is one species that has been moving north, so Shiny Cowbirds may become more established in North Carolina in the future.

Bullock’s Orioles have been found only in winter and mostly at backyard feeders, a very rare cold weather vagrant. They are the Western version of the Baltimore Oriole, and the females closely resemble Baltimore Oriole females. 

Yellow-headed Blackbirds are sometimes found along the coast in fall migration, mixed in with flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds. They are beautiful birds, with their deep yellow heads and chests contrasting with their black bodies.

Regarding Boat-tailed Grackles, they are everywhere along the coast. Common Grackles are the most abundant bird in North Carolina, so there’s no missing them.

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 North Carolina 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.

Black Birds in North Carolina

Here’s a listing of 19 species of birds with black feathers that you can see throughout North Carolina, along with some fun facts and identification tips.

There are a lot of birds with black plumages to be found in North Carolina. 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.

12. 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. In North Carolina, they can be seen mostly in northern North Carolina year-round and southern parts of the state in spring and fall migration.

Bird Notes                                                                                          

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 their wings rapidly while trying to walk across the water’s surface to gain takeoff momentum.

Call and Song

13. Common Gallinule (Common Moorhen)

Scientific Name: Gallinula galeata         Size: 12.6 to 13.8 inches

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

Common Gallinules are squat, plump little waterbirds with black or dark gray plumage, rounded heads, sloping red shields on their foreheads, and red bills with yellow tips. Gallinules have red eyes. Their legs are yellow and their toes are exceptionally large for their body size and, unlike the American Coot, not lobed. This enables them to walk across mud and water vegetation. 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.

Bird Notes                                                                                          

The Common Gallinule was once called the Common Moorhen. If your field guide is older, it most likely says “Moorhen”. The newer field guides have it as “Gallinule”. Either way, you can find this bird under the Gruiform section, along with the Coots and Rails.

Like the rest of the Gruiformes (American Coots and Purple Gallinules), they are awkward in flight. They are often seen beating their wings rapidly while trying to walk across the water’s surface to gain takeoff speed.

Call and Song

14. American Crow

American Crow in a tree

Scientific Name: Corvus brachyrhynchos          Size: 15.8-20.9 inches

American Crows are not crows at all – they are ravens but have 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.

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 North Carolina, 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.

Bird Notes

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

Crows remember faces. A famous experiment had some students on a college campus walking around in masks harassing the local Crows, while an unmasked group walked the same pathways without bothering them. 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 are.

Call and Song

15. 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 part of the country 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.

Bird Notes

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

16. Common Raven

Scientific Name: Corvus corax              Size: 24 inches

Ravens are large, solid black birds with long, wedge-shaped tails, 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.

Common Ravens have a very harsh and deep “caw” that’s more of a croak and can also be heard clacking their bills.

They 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.

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 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.

Bird Notes

Ravens are highly intelligent and adept at solving complicated puzzles.

Ravens have been guarding the Tower of London for a very long time.

Call and Song

17. 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 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.

While the various forms of these birds are widespread in most of the United States, they are limited to the northernmost parts of North Carolina, where the Slate-Colored subspecies is the one you’ll find.

Bird Notes

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

18. Eastern Towhee

eastern towhee

Scientific Name: Pipilo erythrophthalmus                       Size: 6.8 to 8.2 inches

A beautiful, robin-sized songbird, the Eastern Towhee is one of the branches of the sparrow family.

With its dark black head and back, rufous sides and chest, and white belly, the male Eastern Towhee stands out among its sparrow cousins. Often found singing their “Drink Your Tea” song from the branches of small trees, or stirring up the leaf litter on the forest floor, these birds are fun to usually easy to spot and identify.

Female Eastern Towhees have dark brown heads and backs, with the body coloration the same as the male. In North Carolina, both sexes have red eyes. Both sexes also show white feathers on the corners of their tails, which can be seen in flight.

Look for these birds where there is plenty of leaf litter on the ground, in small trees and bushes, and along the sides of pathways and trails. You may find them hopping and scratching among the dead leaves and grass, occasionally tossing bits of detritus to get at a juicy bug.

Bird Notes

Two old names for the Eastern Towhee were the Rufous-sided Towhee and Ground Robin.

Call and Song

19. 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.

Bird Notes

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 Song

20. American Oystercatcher

Scientific Name: Haematopus palliates             Size: 17 to 21 inches     Wingspan: 35 inches

An easily identifiable, large shorebird due to its long, bright orange-red bill, the American Oystercatcher can be found along the North Carolina coast and in saltwater bays and inlets.

Males and females appear all-black seen from a distance, but have black heads and necks and very dark brown backs, with white bellies and long, thick pink-gray legs. Their most outstanding features are their brilliantly-colored bills, dark yellow eyes, and red eye-ring.

These birds are loud and usually call when in flight and can be heard from a mile away.

As their name implies, their diet consists mostly of oysters, clams, and mollusks that they dig out of the sand and/or rocky areas.

Bird Notes

American Oystercatchers and their West Coast cousins Black Oystercatchers are the only shorebirds who can pry open shellfish. Walking the sandy shorelines and rocky areas on the falling tide (when there is enough water for the bivalve to open up), the Oystercatcher uses its long bill to snip the clam’s adductor muscle, so it can’t close its shell. The Oystercatcher then eats its prey and stalks on to find another morsel.

Some Oystercatchers use a less subtle approach — picking up the oyster and smashing it against the rocks to break the shell.

Call and Song

21. Glossy Ibis

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

The most common Ibis in the Northeast, the Glossy Ibis is an all-black wading bird with a distinctive down-curving bill and iridescent, glossy plumage. However, in North Carolina, they are not as abundant or widespread as the White Ibis (yes, we will do articles on both White Birds and Herons and Allies) and are not usually seen away from water and wetlands.

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 mud, 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.

Bird Notes

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 and Song

22. 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.

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

Bird Notes

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

While they are often seen squabbling over food, Turkey Vultures will move off to allow other birds to warm up and return if there’s an open space at the heat source. If they’re part of the roost, they do this with Black Vultures too.

Call and Song

23. 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 white 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.

Bird Notes

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 Song

24. Anhinga

Scientific Name: Anhinga anhinga         Size: 29.5 to 37.4 inches           Wingspan: 42.9 inches

Is it a snake or is it a bird?

In a way, the Anhinga is both – it’s a bird that swims with the majority of its body underwater and its long S-shaped neck above the water, making it appear to be a snake.

Male Anhingas are predominantly black, with some white or silvery streaking on their backs and wings. The females have light brown heads, necks, and breasts. Both sexes have yellowish-orange bills, legs, feet, and fan-like tails.

Like Cormorants, their wings are not waterproof, so they spend time hanging out with their wings outstretched to dry them before going back into the water.

In flight, the Anhinga resembles a flat cross. They fly with their necks completely outstretched, on broad wings that are more like they belong to a raptor than a waterbird.

Bird Notes

Anhingas are also known as “Snakebirds” for their long necks and how their heads appear above the waterline as they swim. They have also been called “Turkey Tails” because their tail resembles that of a Wild Turkey.

If you find a kettle of vultures soaring on the thermals, look carefully because some of those birds may be Anhingas. Their broad wings allow them to soar like eagles (and vultures too!).



25. 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.

Bird Notes

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

26. Black Scoter      

Scientific Name: Melanitta nigra                Size: 19 inches

The Black Scoter is the smallest and most compact of the Scoter family. These sea birds are winter visitors to North Carolina, so look for them in salt water.

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.

These sea ducks are winter visitors. You will find them in the state, but the majority of them winter further south, off the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. You’ll find them on the Atlantic Coast, but not in the numbers usually found north and south of North Carolina.

Bird Notes

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

Call and Song

27. Surf Scoter

Scientific Name: Melanitta perspicillata                  Size: 20 inches

The most abundant of the scoter species to winter off the North Carolina coast, Surf Scoters are 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.

Bird Notes

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 Song

28. Razorbill


Scientific Name: Alca torda                  Size: 26 inches

Razorbills are stocky alcids with a prominent black bill. While these are not annual visitors to North Carolina, there have been years when the jet stream brings colder waters down and the Razorbills decide to do the snowbird thing and venture south with the currents.

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. 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.

Bird Notes

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

29. Common Loon


Scientific Name: Gavia immer                           Size: 32 inches             Wingspan: 46 inches

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

Common Loons have long, heavy bodies. 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.

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.

Bird Notes

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

30. Black Skimmer

Scientific Name: Rynchops niger               Size: 15.8 to 19.7 inches                                Wingspan: 42.9 to 45.3 inches

Watching a Black Skimmer glide along a shoreline is a beautiful sight. With their lower jaw skimming the water to catch small fish and the beating of their long, strong wings, they are stunning birds, easily identified and fun to observe.

These large members of the Laridae family are starkly black on top and white on the bottom, with bright red legs and a two-toned red and black bill, the top of which is shorter than the bottom. Juveniles are born with both parts of their bills the same size; the bottom part begins to lengthen as they get older.

Black Skimmers prefer being on the coast and barrier islands. They are rarely found inland.

Bird Notes

Black Skimmers will often rest with their bodies flat and their necks outstretched.

Call and Song

Where to see black birds in North Carolina

Anhingas and Double-crested Cormorants can be found where there’s water. Anhingas prefer swampy ponds and wetlands while Cormorants tend to prefer the coast. Don’t forget to look up – both like to nest in trees.

Razorbills will be found along the Atlantic Coast and its inlets. The colder the water, the more they show up, and some years they seem to be everywhere. In spring and summer, those same beaches, barrier islands, and saltwater marshes become the vacation home to American Oystercatchers and Black Skimmers.

The sea ducks (Black Scoter, Surf Scoter, and White-Winged Scoter) can be found along the Atlantic coast in winter.  The White-winged Scoter prefers colder waters and is not seen in North Carolina as frequently as the other two scoter species, so consider it a rare winter visitor.

In late Spring and all through Summer, you can find many of these birds in so many places too numerous to list here. Good resources are organizations like North Carolina Audubon and their numerous local chapters. You can also find most of these birds at the National Wildlife Refuges and many preserves in the state.

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

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.

I may have missed a bird or two, but this is a good start to finding and seeing the icterids (blackbirds) and birds that have black plumage in North Carolina.

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