Backyard birds hold a special place in any bird watcher’s heart. I know this is true for me. Cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, woodpeckers—they’re all common backyard birds, and I love being able to say that I can attract them on my own.
For many years, I was solely a backyard birder, focusing my attention and knowledge on the birds I could see out my patio door. But then, I went to my first birding festival and was hooked. I couldn’t believe this whole other world of birds that I had never known before. Soon, I found myself reading about and Googling these birds, eager to see them in their natural environment.
Backyard birds will still always be incredibly near and dear to me, but I’ve since developed a whole other love for birds that will likely never show up in my backyard. Here are some of my favorites and where to find them. For all of these, I recommend looking in a bird field guidebook to learn more about their range and when they are in your area. Maybe it will inspire you to go beyond the backyard to discover some of these beauties for yourself.
You might get lucky enough to catch some warblers (like the Yellow-rumped Warbler) stopping in your backyard, but this would be more rare than common. This family of birds has some true beauties in it, including the Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Black-throated blue, Black-and-white, Parula, Prothonotary, Magnolia, and Yellow Warbler. (This is just the tip of the iceberg!)
See also: Winter Warblers
Your best chance of seeing these birds in all their glory is early to late spring, depending on what part of the country you live in. If you go before leaves fill out on the trees, you will have an easier time spotting them. It’s easy to find bird walks, festivals, and events that cater to people wanting to see warblers, so look around your area in spring. You will be so glad you did—it’s really something you have to experience up close for yourself.
You might be lucky enough to attract a screech owl with a nesting box, but most people won’t see an owl in their backyard. (They might hear one, though—Great Horned are fairly common throughout North America.) If you love owls, your best bet is to go to them.
Keep an eye out for owl events in your area, and ask at your local nature center for tips on where to go. Winter tends to be a good time to look for owls because they often travel south to look for food. Look out for reports for Great Gray, Snowy, and Great Horned Owls.
Just open a bird book and you will probably find a lot more ducks than you thought possible. Mallards are pretty common and will even go in backyards, but there are so many other cool locations to find ducks. Winter is the time of year to go looking for ducks because they will gather in groups at open water. Coastlines (and the Great Lakes) are especially popular for wintering ducks. They might have different winter markings than you would expect, so your best bet is to check a bird book. Some of the ducks to look for include Redhead, Canvasback, Harlequin, and Common Goldeneye.
The Bald Eagle is popular around the country. It’s just so big and pristine—anytime you see a Bald Eagle, it’s a good day of birding. Challenge yourself to find a Bald Eagle in every single season as well as a Bald Eagle’s nest, usually high in the tops of trees and up to several feet wide. If you want another challenge, try to spot a Golden Eagle. They don’t have the bright white head of Bald Eagles, but they are amazing to see in the wild.
See also: Bald Eagle Facts and Trivia
5. Egrets and Herons
I’m grouping these birds together because you will often see them in similar habitats. They like to hang around shorelines, rivers and ponds, both for eating and nesting. The two most popular egrets are the Snowy Egret at 24 inches tall and the Great Egret at nearly 40 inches tall. They look similar, but the Snowy has a dark bill, while the Great has a yellow bill. The Great Blue Heron is one of the biggest birds you can see in North America at 47 inches tall. Then, you can also look for the Little Blue Heron and the Tricolored Heron, both in the Southwest. If you go to Florida, definitely put them on your list!
Every once in a while, these birds will wander into backyards, but if you’re not so lucky, you will have to seek them out on your own. The three tanagers you’re most likely to see include the Western, Scarlet and Summer. The males have bright, gorgeous colors, while the females are duller. The first time you see one of these birds in the wild, it will take your breath away.
The three buntings you want to put on your bucket list include Indigo, Lazuli, and Painted. They all are so bright in the wild that it will make you do a double-take. All have specific regions they are found in, including the East, West, and South, so definitely look up their ranges in a bird book. And if you find yourself in their territory, go out to find them. They can sometimes be lured to backyards with fruit, so you might check with local nature centers for recent sightings.
I have a serious weakness for kingfishers, so I’m putting this on the list because of personal bias. The Belted Kingfisher sits around 13 inches tall and has the coolest mohawk on the top of its head. You can see these birds perched around open water. They wait patiently and then swoop down, sometimes pulling out a fish bigger than them! If you happen to be in Southern Texas, you can look for the Green Kingfisher too. But otherwise, Belted Kingfishers are all over North America.
This is a big family of birds that often go unnoticed. The flashiest of the flycatchers is the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, which is the state bird of Oklahoma and has a long, 13-inch tail. Other flycatchers include the Least, Yellow-bellied, Acadian, Alder, Willow, and Great Crested.
Spring is a good time to look for flycatchers. As you’re out hoping to spot warblers, buntings, and tanagers, also keep an eye out for flycatchers. You will probably need to consult a field guide to notice the small nuances in identifying one from the next, but just look at it as a fun challenge!
Swallows are so fun to watch as they swoop to and fro, looking for insects. Some of the ones you might expect to see beyond the backyard include Cliff, Tree, Barn, Bank, and Northern Rough-winged Swallows. For a swallow that can be attracted to backyards, look for Purple Martins (yes, they are part of the swallow family). During nesting season, you can also look for swallows by following their nesting habits. They build amazing nests which are often under banks, in cliffs and under the eaves of buildings.
Now you have plenty of birds to cross off your wishlist beyond the backyard. Get a good pair of binoculars and head out to explore!