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Explore the Fascinating Small Birds of California Full Guide of 2024

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small birds in californiaIntroduction 1:

You’re in for a treat, fellow bird lover. California’s diverse landscapes host an incredible variety of small birds that’ll captivate your inner naturalist. Grab your binoculars and join me on an ornithological adventure across the Golden State.

We’ll cover some standout species‘ ranges, behaviors, and traits so you can better appreciate their beauty. Before you know it, you’ll have the know-how to identify these avian wonders by sight and sound.

With a little luck, maybe you’ll even spot California’s tiniest birds visiting your own backyard! Now let’s take flight and explore some fascinating small birds found right here in California.

Introduction 2:

Fan of our feathered friends? Well let me be the first to welcome you to birding paradise. California’s diverse habitats host an array of captivating species. In this guide, we’ll cover some of the state’s most beloved little birds, perfect for beginners and experts alike.

Together, we’ll uncover these species’ key traits, behaviors, and habitats. Before you know it, you’ll have the skills to identify their songs and glimpse their splendor in your own backyard. Join me on this birdwatching adventure and satisfy your inner naturalist’s yearning for knowledge and connection.

Key Takeaways

  • California is home to a diverse range of small bird species, including the Dark-eyed Junco, Allen’s Hummingbird, California Towhee, Oak Titmouse, Cedar Waxwing, California Scrub-Jay, Cooper’s Hawk, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, and Red-shouldered Hawk.
  • These small birds can be found in various habitats throughout California, including woodlands, gardens, urban areas, coastal scrub, chaparral, shrubby areas, orchards, and coniferous forests.
  • Each species has unique characteristics and behaviors, such as the Dark-eyed Junco’s gray coloration and distinctive white belly; the Allen’s Hummingbird’s brilliant, iridescent plumage and aerial displays; and the California Towhee’s ground-dwelling behavior and leaf litter scratching for food.
  • Some small birds in California, like the Oak Titmouse and Cedar Waxwing, have specific nesting and feeding habits, while others, like the California Scrub-Jay and Yellow-rumped Warbler, are known for their intelligent behavior and migratory patterns.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco
The Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) is a small, common sparrow that can be seen across North America. This bird has slate-colored plumage, a pink bill, and white outer tail feathers that flash when in flight.

Range and Habitat of Dark-eyed Junco

You’re thrilled to see dark-eyed juncos visiting your backyard feeders each winter, as these small sparrows breed in Canada and Alaska but migrate south through California and across North America to overwinter.

Attracting juncos to your yard is simple when you provide optimal habitat. Offer open areas with low ground cover and shrubs for foraging, as well as roosting sites like conifers and dense brush piles.

Strategically placed feeders stocked with their favorite seeds and berries will draw them to your home all season long. To entice juncos, make sure to offer open ground with low cover for foraging. Also provide roosting spots like conifers or brush piles.

Fill feeders with preferred seeds and berries. With ideal habitat and food sources, juncos will visit your yard throughout winter.

Physical Characteristics of Dark-eyed Junco

They’re known for their gray bodies, pink bills, and white outer tail feathers that flash in flight. These small birds show subtle plumage variations across their range. Slate-colored in the east while western birds exhibit brown backs and paler underparts.

Nests on or near the ground lined with grasses, roots and hair. The female incubates 3-4 eggs for 11-13 days. Both parents feed the chicks. Though widespread, juncos retreat from northern areas in winter and gather in large flocks at backyard feeders.

Allen’s Hummingbird

You’re in for a real treat if you spot an Allen’s Hummingbird in California. With its bright orange throat and crown, energetic flight displays, and aggressive behavior, these feisty hummers stand out with their unique features and limited breeding range along the Pacific Coast.

Range and Habitat of Allen’s Hummingbird

Allen’s Hummingbird is found mainly along the California coast and in southern Oregon. They prefer habitats such as coastal sage scrub, chaparral, oak woodlands, and riparian areas.

The migration pattern differs from other hummingbird species. Feeding habits involve consuming nectar from flowers but also insects for protein.

Nests are built using plant material secured with spider silk.

Unique Features of Allen’s Hummingbird

Entranced by its jewel-colored iridescence, you’ll often find yourself spellbound as the Allen’s hummingbird darts and hovers to feed. Come spring, the male’s striking orange throat and green crown appear, signaling courtship.

With lightning speed, males climb then dive in dramatic displays to impress females. Their curved bill and long tongue let them drink readily from tubular flowers. Though small, Allen’s hummingbirds are fierce defenders of blossom-filled territories.

By supporting native plants and trees, you can aid in sustaining their migratory populations.

California Towhee

California Towhee
The California towhee is a small bird endemic to California and the west coast. You can find this ground-dwelling bird scavenging for insects and seeds if you search areas with heavy brush in riparian canyons or oak woodlands.

Be sure to look in areas with thick cover at ground level when trying to observe the California towhee in its natural habitat.

Range and Habitat of California Towhee

Scrutinize the chaparral as you explore California’s canyons and foothills, where the timid California Towhee scurries below sagebrush in search of seeds. The Towhee favors the shrublands of coastal canyons and oak woodlands across the state.

From Los Angeles up to the southern Cascades, watch as these shy ground foragers hop through leaf litter listening for threats. They rarely venture far from dense cover, but their catlike mews often give away their hidden presence.

With patience, you may glimpse the rusty flanks and crisp white-spotted wings of a Towhee before it vanishes back into the brush.

Behavior and Diet of California Towhee

Chase the California Towhee through brushy terrain as it forages noisily for insects, seeds, and berries. Delight in its sharp chip notes as the bird hops and scratches along the ground. Marvel at both parents building the nest together, the male enforcing his territory through harsh guaches and chucks.

Witness the Towhees’ behavior: foraging mostly in pairs or small groups, yet solitary when focusing on finding food while hopping through heavy cover. So much to observe in the habits and activities of this small bird of California.

Oak Titmouse

Oak Titmouse
The Oak Titmouse is a bold songbird that can be found foraging actively among oaks and other trees in the hills and canyons of California. Distinguished by its prominent crest, this species has a range throughout much of California.

Oak Titmice typically inhabit oak woodlands and oak-pine forests, relying heavily on oaks for food and shelter.

Oak Titmice build nests in tree cavities or old woodpecker holes, often lining the nest with grass, moss, hair, and feathers. The female lays between 5-6 eggs which she incubates for approximately two weeks.

Both parents feed the young a diet consisting mainly of insects, spiders, acorns, seeds, and berries. Oak Titmice will join mixed flocks with other chickadee species and bushtits while foraging. This sociable bird is identified by its distinct call, described as a harsh “zee-zur” or “pee-yurr” sound.

Curious and acrobatic, the active Oak Titmouse frequently hangs upside-down to reach food sources.

Range and Habitat of Oak Titmouse

You’ll find the Oak Titmouse flitting through oak woodlands across California and southwestern Oregon. Look for these small gray birds with rusty orange underparts as you explore parks and preserves with mature oaks.

Listen for their repetitive, nasal zee-zee-zaw call. Oak Titmice breed in tree cavities and are year-round residents. To help conserve their habitat, support oak woodland restoration efforts. Oak Titmice thrive where old oaks stand.

Nesting and Feeding Habits of Oak Titmouse

  • Craft nests in natural cavities or abandoned woodpecker holes
  • Occasionally use nest boxes, unlike most other titmice
  • Feed on insects like caterpillars found mainly in oaks
  • Forage by searching crevices in bark, leaves, and twigs
  • Favor acorns when insect sources are scarce
  • Visit feeders for suet and sunflower seeds

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing
Welcome fellow naturalist! The Cedar Waxwing has a large and unusual range across North America, with some living in California year-round and others traveling here for winter from Canada and Alaska. With its sleek crest, yellow-tipped tail, and distinctive bandit mask, this sociable frugivore is hard to mistake when you spot a flock swooping through open woods or fruiting trees with a gentle trill.

Range and Habitat of Cedar Waxwing

You’d be thrilled to learn the Cedar Waxwing can be found in open woodlands across much of North America. With its silky plumage and jaunty crest, this sleek nomad wanders in flocks seeking berries. Graceful in flight yet social when at rest, waxwings nest in trees but roam for fruit.

From Canada to Central America, their musical trills echo across forests and fields as these birds migrate according to the ripening of their favorite foods, ever in search of their next meal.

Distinctive Features and Behavior of Cedar Waxwing

Watch closely as the nomadic Cedar Waxwing flits through the trees, trilling and passing berries to one another in a most curious display of social bonding. Flocks of these elegant birds descend on berry bushes, feeding in such close proximity that they often preen each other’s feathers or pass morsels beak-to-beak.

The Cedar Waxwing’s sociable nature lends itself well to fascinating moments for avid birders – keep an eye out for their nomadic wanderings near backyard fruit trees or urban berry bushes.

California Scrub-Jay

California Scrub-Jay
Nestled in the chaparral and oak woodlands, the cheeky California scrub jay can be spotted. A year-round resident of the state’s dry lowlands, this bold bird wanders displaying intelligence through tool use and problem-solving abilities.

Range and Habitat of California Scrub-Jay

Delve into oak woodlands to observe the California Scrub-Jay’s habitat. These intelligent birds thrive in the shrubby habitats of the American West. Seek their blue and gray plumage amidst chaparral, oak forests, and pinyon-juniper woodlands.

Listen for their harsh, scratchy calls ringing through the bushes. Spot noisy family groups foraging for acorns and invertebrates while defending territories. Appreciate scrub-jay adaptability, though habitat loss impacts some populations.

Interesting Facts About California Scrub-Jay

The California scrub-jay’s comical antics are on display as these clever birds stash acorns, mimic hawks to scare off predators, and sound loud alarm calls to warn of danger. Comical and clever, the California scrub-jay hoards acorns, uses mimicry to deter predators, and loudly alarms flockmates of approaching danger.

These engaging birds’ antics showcase inventiveness amid competition and community. Their amazing adaptations confirm belonging with beautiful surroundings, highlighting fellowship each day.

Cooper’s Hawk

Wow, have you seen these speedy predators in action? Cooper’s Hawks are medium-sized raptors found throughout much of North America that ambush and chase down smaller bird prey after stealthy approaches through dense woods and tangled branches.

Range and Habitat of Cooper’s Hawk

Roosting in open woodlands, the Cooper’s hawk inhabits forests and towns across North America. Nesting in tall trees, it adapts to urban parks and backyards. With lightning speed, it surprises small birds and mammals, grasping prey in its strong talons.

Though shy, watch for its long tail and bold, reddish bars. See it perch and pivot to scan the ground for careless jitterbugs. Despite disturbances, recognize its refusal to abandon prime habitat. Value glimpses of this stealthy hunter gliding above the treetops.

Hunting Techniques and Prey of Cooper’s Hawk

You’ll often see Cooper’s hawks stealthily stalking and ambushing small bird prey in dense vegetation.

  • They utilize surprise attacks from cover to catch unaware prey
  • Cooper’s hawks specialize in capturing small, woodland birds on the wing
  • They employ swift stoops from perch to ambush foraging birds
  • These accipiters display incredible agility darting through branches
  • Cooper’s hawks have excellent vision to spot hidden, moving prey

The deadly hunting skills of these accipiters help them thrive despite their small size.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler
The hardy yellow-rumped warbler is an abundant backyard visitor throughout California during the winter months. You can find these striking birds flitting among trees and shrubs as they search for insects, spiders, and wax myrtle berries to fuel their lengthy migration.

Range and Habitat of Yellow-rumped Warbler

Spread your wings across western mountains and eastern woodlands, warbler, making the trees your home as you flit through forests and thickets. Hop among pine boughs hunting insects or pause to sing your nasal cheery song. Fly north in spring to breed among spruce and nest in conifers of the Sierra Nevada.

Before winter descends, join mixed flocks migrating through chaparral, feeding on the fruits of manzanita and ceanothus. Though abundant, protect their habitat so warblers continue brightening forests with dashing yellow rumps.

Migratory Patterns and Diet of Yellow-rumped Warbler

Winter’s chill drives your vibrant yellow-rumped warblers south to escape the cold, crossing borders and seas to reach warmer climates where they can continue foraging on berries and insects. These birds migrate in flocks, feeding on wax myrtles in autumn and traveling south along the coast to wintering grounds in Mexico and southern California.

There the yellow-rumped warblers gorge on juniper berries and insects before returning north in spring to breed in open conifer forests, following routes traced by their ancestors over eons.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Chestnut-backed Chickadee
As a birdwatcher in California, you may encounter the chestnut-backed chickadee, a nonmigratory bird found along the Pacific coast. The species is easily identified by its nasal chick-a-dee-dee vocalizations and active foraging in coniferous forests and woodlands within its range.

Range and Habitat of Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Chestnut-backed chickadees chatter confidently in coastal forests and thickets along the Pacific like curious children exploring a playground for the first time. These inquisitive birds inhabit dense conifer and mixed evergreen woodlands. You’ll find them actively foraging along tree branches, stump-hopping, and probing for insects in the foliage.

Vocalizations and Behavior of Chestnut-backed Chickadee

You’ll frequently hear the distinct chick-a-dee-dee-dee call of the Chestnut-backed Chickadee as it actively forages in trees and shrubs. With a broad repertoire of vocalizations, these social birds use calls to mark territory, attract mates, and communicate within flocks.

Curious and acrobatic, they hang upside down while probing bark crevices for insects and spiders. Throughout the year, mated pairs remain together, roosting in cavity nests with fur-lined cups.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk
Take a look around the oak woodlands and riparian forests of the western United States and you’ll likely spot the rusty-colored Red-shouldered Hawk perched high in the trees or soaring overhead. These birds are year-round residents, fiercely defending nesting territories while hunting reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and even birds from perches and by soaring over open areas.

Range and Habitat of Red-shouldered Hawk

You get great views of red-shouldered hawks in California’s oak woodlands and riparian forests, where they prefer to build their nests. Adaptable to various habitats, this noisy raptor favors secluded forests with open perching and hunting areas.

Though populations suffered from DDT, banning it aided recovery. Now common, this territorial hawk breeds from February to July, and its scream-like kee-aah call echoes through the trees. Conservation helps protect the red-shouldered hawk’s diverse diet and expansive Californian range.

Nesting and Hunting Behavior of Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered hawks build their nests high in trees and hunt from perches before diving on prey. You’ll find these birds constructing large stick nests in mature trees near water. They prefer hunting small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects from a perch before diving down to snatch up prey.

Their distinctive kee-ah call rings through the trees as they defend nesting sites.


Soaring through the sky, marveling at the beauty of California’s small birds is an experience like none other. From the Dark-eyed Junco to the Allen’s Hummingbird, to the California Towhee, Oak Titmouse, Cedar Waxwing, California Scrub-Jay, Cooper’s Hawk, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Chestnut-backed Chickadee and Red-shouldered Hawk, each species is uniquely captivating.

All of these small birds in California have their own distinctive features, behaviors, and habitats that make them truly special. Whether you’re a seasoned birdwatcher, a naturalist, or just an admirer of nature’s beauty, the small birds of California are sure to amaze and inspire you.

Avatar for Mutasim Sweileh

Mutasim Sweileh

Mutasim Sweileh is a passionate bird enthusiast and author with a deep love for avian creatures. With years of experience studying and observing birds in their natural habitats, Mutasim has developed a profound understanding of their behavior, habitats, and conservation. Through his writings, Mutasim aims to inspire others to appreciate and protect the beautiful world of birds.