By Hugh Powell
June 18, 2008
top 120 list of common bird species
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Thanks to everyone who’s contributed to our top-120 list of common bird species. In just the last five days we’ve received 184 suggestions representing 109 species (counting some suggestions at DC Birding). To make that mass of names a little easier to envision, I’ve put them into a word cloud for you: In the picture above, the size of a species’ name represents how many times you’ve suggested it.

(Update #5: now incorporating 224 species, 794 suggestions – thanks! If you’re finding the fine print hard to read, click on the image for a larger version.)

So – is anything glaringly missing? Should Red-winged Blackbird really be so small – or Townsend’s Warbler so large? Has your part of the continent so far escaped notice? For example (ahem, Coloradoans, Wyomites, Oregonians), does anyone want to nominate Mountain Bluebird, Juniper Titmouse, Pinyon Jay? You’ll notice that Texans, Floridians, and Alaskans have already spoken up for commonplaces of their regions, such as Black-crested Titmouse, Boreal Chickadee, Orange-crowned Warbler, and White Ibis.

I’m amazed at how quickly the commenters zeroed in on many of the really common birds, getting particularly good coverage of the East. But I think there are plenty more to be added, or perhaps just refined (i.e., is Double-crested Cormorant really on a par with Canada Goose or Common Grackle?). Or perhaps you think some of these birds are too specialized for a “common birds” ID tool? These are some of the issues we’re pondering here at Sapsucker Woods, along with questions like should we include waterfowl? coastal birds? nocturnal birds? What do you think?


  • I am not sure if I like the idea of just using “common” birds. To me, that is open too much to interpretation – what habitat, region, season, etc. you are in dictates too much what is “common”.

    If you live by a pasture that has dozens of Bobolinks they are more common than the smaller amount of Red-winged Blackbirds.

    Western Scrub-Jays aren’t too common in northern Illinois, etc. Even calling birds “backyard” birds can be pretty wide open (in my yard I’ve had Connecticut, Cape May, and Black-throated Blue Warblers).

    Thus, I think this list should be based on most reported birds via Breeding Bird Surveys or even eBird or maybe it should show info on similar birds or certain families of birds (warblers, sparrows, flycatchers, raptors, etc.)

    ~ Birdfreak

  • One big oddity in that word cloud is that red-shouldered hawk is much bigger than red-tailed hawk. I’m not sure why that would be, but both ought to be there. It’s probably just an aberration, like the others pointed out in the post.

    I think that the early, limited edition of the list should focus on the most common, or most frequently reported species. That would provide the greatest support for CLO’s various citizen science projects. If this version is a success, the more specialized species can be added later.

  • Hugh

    Hi – just a heads-up that we’ve updated the word cloud as some more list suggestions rolled in. Keep the suggestions coming and we’ll keep updating – thanks.

    @birdfreak: we do want our eventual bird ID tool to help you ID nearly anything you point your binoculars at. For this round, we have to focus on a shortlist just to keep the task manageable. That’s why we want to survey what our readers consider “common.” We’ll use our judgment – as well as eBird reports – to compile the final list. Red-winged Blackbird will be on there; the jury’s still out on Bobolink, though.

    Another thing we’re cognizant of: people posting to this blog may tend to be more experienced or invested birders than the people who would get the most out of a “common birds” ID tool. So, two requests: if you’re a beginning bird watcher, please drop us a comment! And if you’re experienced, perhaps think about the kinds of birds people seem to ask you for help with. Thanks…

  • Sounds like you all are going in the right direction with this. Just wanted to add a couple things–

    I originally added the Red-Cockaded woodpecker in my list of southeastern woodpeckers to be added. Based on this being the first cut and we only want to ID the more common birds at first, I think it should be taken out for now.

    I know you can’t add everything at this point, but I thought of a few more popular birds that I didn’t see on the list and often see in my yard:

    Brown Thrasher

    Purple Martin

    Baltimore Oriole

    Orchard Oriole

    Eastern Towee

    If any of these birds are on the list I apologize for not seeing them.

    Also, not that anybody has any doubt on what kind of bird this is, but I didn’t see the Bald Eagle listed.

    Thanks for allowing the input!


  • Hi – I’ve considered myself mostly a backyard birder for the past 15 years, but I still claim to be a beginning birder when I go beyond my “backyard.” I live in Silicon Valley, aka Santa Clara Valley, Calif. My most common visitors to my backyard have been house finches, lesser goldfinches, anna’s hummingbirds, plain titmice, chestnut-backed chickadees, mourning doves, western scrub jays, American crows, dark-eyed juncos, California towhees, and house sparrows. I have had other infrequent visitors such as brown-headed cowbirds, Cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawk, band-tailed pigeons, black phoebe, bewick’s wren, mockingbird, Bullock’s orioles, robin, Audubon’s warbler, a rufous hummer (only momentarily), a black-headed grosbeak, and pine siskins. We even had a female mallard show up one day. And this year we’ve even had rock pigeons perching on the wires above our backyard, but they haven’t bothered to come into the yard. Anyway, all of these birds mentioned are what I would consider “common” for a backyard in my “corner of the world.” Thanks for giving me the opportunity to contribute.

  • Hugh

    I’ve updated the word cloud again so you can see the results. Mourning Dove is definitely dominating the image, but other species are starting to emerge from the cloud. New suggestions are reinforcing the sense that we’ve got most of the common birds already – but most comments still offer one or two new bird species, so we’re not done yet. Thanks again.

  • I’m really surprised Ruby-throated Hummingbird is as small as it is. Are my eastern birder brethren forgetting them?

  • Rita Kempf

    If this list is going to be for beginning birders, you will probably want to make it slightly biased towards the larger birds that the beginning birder will see. The Robin, Doves, Thrasher, Blue Jay and Cardinal come to mind – maybe even add a bias for Goldfinches because their colors get them noticed. Also why are the Grackles so underrepresented? If you see one Grackle, you have probably seen 10 or so. Let’s not forget the Boat-Tailed and Great-Tailed – if you’ve seen one of them, you’ve probably seen a treefull!

  • MSC

    I wanted to mention, as a beginning birder, there are whole groups of birds that I haven’t broken into yet because there are too many kinds that look almost exactly alike (sparrows, shorebirds, warblers). I only give them a stab when I get a really good, close look. I’m not sure how to help birders like me, though knowing what’s the most common would certainly help.

    The wordcloud is really cool, maybe you could have a feature where you can enter the region, habitat, and time of year and get a wordcloud of all the species that occur there, with size of word proportional to how common it is? Then a novice like me could print out the list and bring it along and have a quick reference to what what a new bird is likely to be without having to comb through all the range maps.

  • Rita Kempf

    Oops! One other thing I thought of. If you are using the Citizen Science projects to tally bird counts, you are neglecting the birds that don’t perch. According to the criterion for Project Feeder Watch, the bird cannot be a fly-over. Chimney Swifts and Black Vultures fly over my house frequently in the summer. (Sometimes all day!) They are easy to forget because they don’t land. Let’s build in a bias towards these birds because they don’t come to a feeder, but they are right out in plain sight

    Auburn, Al.

  • Pete S.

    I think with all of the variables involved with birding the easiest and fairest way would be to gather the totals from citizen science projects, birdathons ect. Wow a tough one even within a specific region there are many variables, vegetation, time of year, elevation and the list goes on. What I’ll see in my yard on the Susquhenna River in the spring will be vastly different from Hawk MT. Sanctuary, 1.5 hr away in the fall. A consensus based on generalized lists, perhaps with a emphasis on beginning or intermediate birders and their needs.

  • Hugh

    Thanks to a barrage of comments in the last four days, we’ve got over 500 suggestions for our list and are starting to get decent coverage of most regions of the country. Thanks also for the more general suggestions – such as how to deal with flying vs perching birds, considering the season, focusing on confusing groups, and expanding this whole word cloud phenomenon into a way to download regional bird lists.

    Check out the newly updated word cloud to see if your favorite birds (i.e., Ruby-throated Hummingbird, grackles) have made it into bigger font yet!

  • Birds I saw a lot of in Colorado (that aren’t already in bold print in the cloud):

    Western Meadowlark

    Mountain Bluebird

    Townsend’s Solitaire

    Steller’s Jay

    Mountain Chickadee

    Eastern and Say’s Phoebe

    Eastern and Western Kingbird

    Yellow-headed Blackbird


    Belted Kingfisher

    Ring-billed and Herring Gull

    Common Raven

    American Kestrel

    Double-crested Cormorant (I’ve seen dozens sharing a tree)

    Hooded and Common Merganser


    Wood Duck

    American Wigeon

    American Coot

    Northern Shoveler

    Barrow’s and Common Goldeneye (Barrows on numerous occasions across the state)

    Lesser Scaup

    Horned, Western, Clark’s Grebe

    American White Pelican

    Swainson’s Hawk

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Harlan’s Hawk (surprisingly common in winter)


    Bald Eagle

    Golden Eagle

    Even as a not-complete-rookie anymore, I still often give up on making identifications of the specific species of sparrows, warblers, and gulls. An interactive key within each of those, preferably enhanced with real photos of birds in-hand as well as the wild, that would be useful to me.

  • MSC

    How interesting that mourning dove the largest word in the cloud. Isn’t the House Sparrow the most ubiquitous bird in North America?

  • Terri Gregory

    Because it’s been so wet here in the upper midwest, I’ve had many more blackbirds, especially Redwinged Blackbirds, than usual. So, at least this year, RWBs would be as large on my word cloud as the Mourning Dove, which is correspondingly smaller. Otherwise, looks good.

  • Rachael Cohen

    I think a common-bird identification tool is a great idea, but it makes much more sense to me to make (four or five?) regional lists, rather than trying to make one that includes all of North America. Why confuse Eastern birders with Stellar’s jay and Western birders with Tufted titmouse?

  • Hugh

    Hey, thanks for that suggestion Rachael. In effect, that’s what we’ll be doing – the first question we’ll ask you is where you were when you saw the bird. That will shorten the list of possibilities to just the ones in your region (and by region – at least for the time being – we mean your state or province).

    I’ve just updated the word cloud to reflect some late-breaking suggestions from Coloradoans, Alaskans, Georgians, and someone who has Anhingas and Common Ground-Doves – Louisiana, maybe? Thanks for all the ideas!

  • I have been birding for a year, so I consider myself a beginning birder. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean I am interested only in the most common species. I find that I learn just as much from advanced information as I do from info geared towards beginners. Nonetheless, I do agree it would be good to start out with common birds for the ID tool while you’re in the process of creating/testing it.

    Well, that’s my two-cents worth. :-) Thanks for the great blog and for listening to our ideas!

  • Mike

    A few thoughts on building your ID tool.

    What methodology will be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the ID tool you pilot? Will you be verifying bird ID’s by asking users to send in photos of the birds they identified using your tool? I have been birding for 10 years and still have great difficulty identifying certain birds. I often check as many as 6 references, do a GOOGLE image search, and still have to send a picture to a regional expert to verify the ID.

    If you restrict your sample to common birds your results may be biased by the observers familiarity with the bird. The bird may be common because it appears in greater numbers or because it is easily identified and therefore more frequently reported.

    If a birder can correctly ID a Ring-billed gull when it appears in it’s 1st, 2nd or 3rd winter stage using the tool, then you know the tool is working. The same would be true in the identification of more difficult species to ID such as warblers, sandpipers, and the many sparrows. I rarely report sightings of warblers because I ‘m never certain of the ID. I report using your eBird project. Great tool!

    Limiting the number of species in the pilot is a good idea but limiting to common birds may skew your results.

    I have found that behavior and multiple photographs of a species in various views and forms are of the most help in making an accurate ID.

    Thanks for asking for input. All the projects at the Lab are outstanding and I’m sure this one will continue in that tradition.

  • Jim

    I’m a big Mourning Dove fan.

  • Jim

    I am an 9 year old boy and I have a true story about how I started birding. One day I saw a strange bird. I did not know what it was,”It looks like a dove but it is not white!” I thoght to myself. The next day,

    my grandparents sent me a bird book. I opened up the book- and before I knew it I saw a picture of the bird, it said in big letters “Mourning Dove”_ “That is the bird!” I said. Now I love them and the other bids. I try to feed the birds every single day.

  • Jim

    PS: I used to have Band Tailed Pigeons nesting in our eves, but now I have Mourning Doves on our roof

  • Jim

    Thanks for reading! Want to learn about some more bird watchers? Well, keep reading!

  • Jim


  • David Morin

    Not sure you’ll take my suggestions, as I’m from Ontario, Canada, but up here, the most common birds [ones you’ll get everytime you go for a drive, walk or birding] are House Sparrow, Common Grackle, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Red-Winged Blackbird, Song Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, House Finch, Mourning Dove, Rock Pigeon, Black-capped Chickadee, Northern Cardinal, European Starling, Ring-billed Gull, Tree Swallow, Barn Swallow, American Robin, Mallard, American Black Duck, Canada Goose, American Goldfinch.