Did you recently see a mystery BROWN bird in California?
If so, I’m guessing you are trying to figure out how to identify the species correctly!
Well, you are in the right place. Below, you will learn about the most common brown birds found in California. I’ve included high-quality pictures and range maps to help you!
But before you begin, let me give you one warning:
Trying to figure out which brown bird you saw can be difficult. First, brown is the most common color for birds because it helps them with camouflage. Second, many brown birds have few defining characteristics that make them easy to identify. Especially when you see the individual from a distance, it just looks like a “little brown bird.”
The list below focuses on COMMON brown birds that visit bird feeders in California. I did not include any birds of prey or water birds. If you need help with either of these types of birds, then check out the following articles:
#1. Red-winged Blackbird (female)
- Agelaius phoeniceus
- Males are all black, except for a bright red and yellow patch on their shoulders.
- Females are brown and heavily streaked. There is a bit of yellow around their beak.
- Both sexes have a conical beak and are commonly seen sitting on cattails or perched high in a tree overlooking their territory.
While male Red-winged Blackbirds are easy to identify, females can be challenging. What helps me is their slightly larger size and streaks, which set them apart from other smaller brown birds in California.
Red-winged Blackbirds are almost exclusively found in marshes and other wet areas during the breeding season. However, when it’s the nonbreeding season, these birds spend much of their time in grasslands, farm fields, and pastures looking for weedy seeds to eat. It’s common to find them in large flocks that feature other blackbird species, such as grackles, cowbirds, and starlings.
- RELATED: 9 LIVE Bird Feeder Cams From Around the World [Including MINE!]
Red-winged Blackbird Range Map
It’s possible to see these blackbirds at your feeders! To attract them, try offering a combination of millet, cracked corn, and sunflower seeds.
WATCH a male and female Red-winged Blackbird on my feeders above!
If you visit a wetland or marsh in spring, you are almost guaranteed to hear males singing and displaying, trying to attract a mate. Listen for a rich, musical song, which lasts about one second and sounds like “conk-la-ree!“ And at any time of year, you can hear males or females make a “check” call. This sound is used for many purposes, such as flying, feeding, or defending their territory.
#2. Brown-headed Cowbird (female)
- Molothrus ater
- Look for a stocky, chunky bird with a thick, conical beak.
- Males have black bodies with a brown head (hence the name). In poor light, it can be hard to tell that the head is brown.
- Females are a plain brown color. There is slight streaking on the belly and a black eye.
Female cowbirds are one of the hardest brown birds to identify in California!
Maybe it’s just me, but lady Brown-headed Cowbirds always trip me up. I think it’s the fact that there just aren’t any features that stand out.
Brown-headed Cowbird Range Map
#3. House Finch
- Haemorhous mexicanus
- Males are rosy red around their heads and upper breasts. They have brown streaks on their back, tail, and belly.
- Females are brown birds with streaks on their back, tail, and belly.
- Both sexes have notched tails and conical beaks.
It’s common to see these brown birds in California near people.
Look for House Finches around buildings, backyards, parks, and other urban and suburban areas.
House Finch Range Map
In fact, House Finches are often the first birds to discover new bird feeders. These birds are intensely curious and rarely travel alone, so their arrival often helps other birds find your feeders! I see them mostly eating sunflower and safflower seeds in my yard.
#4. House Sparrow
- Passer domesticus
- Males have gray crowns, black bibs, white cheeks, and chestnut on the sides of their faces and neck. Their backs are predominantly brown with black streaks.
- Females are dull brown birds with streaks of black on their backs. Their underparts are light brown. They can be distinguished by the tan line that extends behind their eyes.
House Sparrows are an invasive species (originally from the Middle East) and now one of the most abundant and widespread brown birds in California (and the world)!
In most urban and suburban areas, it’s INCREDIBLY COMMON to see House Sparrows. They owe their success to their ability to adapt and live near humans. Unlike most other birds, they love grains and are commonly seen eating bread and popcorn at amusement parks, sporting events, etc. They especially love eating cracked corn, millet, and milo at your bird feeders.
Range Map – House Sparrow
House Sparrows can be heard across the entire planet. In fact, pay attention the next time you’re watching the news in another country. Listen for a simple song that includes lots of “cheep” notes.
#5. Song Sparrow
- Melospiza melodia
- The chest has brown streaks that converge onto a central breast spot.
- On their head, look for a brown crown with a gray stripe down the middle. Gray eyebrows and gray cheeks.
- The back and body are mostly rust-brown with gray streaks throughout.
These brown birds are common in California, especially in wet & shrubby open areas.
Song Sparrow Range Map
But sparrows, in general, are difficult to identify due to their abundance and how similar they all tend to look. Until you take a closer look, they all appear “small and brown.”
The easiest way to confirm you have seen a Song Sparrow is to listen for their beautiful songs. The typical one, which you can listen to below, consists of three short notes followed by a pretty trill. The song varies depending on location and the individual bird.
#6. White-crowned Sparrow
- Zonotrichia leucophrys
- Both sexes can be grayish or brownish with a long tail.
- On their head, they can have black and white stripes or brown and tan. The head is peaked on the crown.
- Beaks are orangish-yellow or pinkish.
As the name suggests, these birds are not entirely brown. The top of their head has distinctive black and white stripes!
Look for White-crowned Sparrows in shrubbery habitats with open grassy areas in the breeding season. In winter, they prefer weedy fields, thickets, and backyards.
White-crowned Sparrow Range Map
If you want to attract these brown birds to your backyard in California, use sunflower seeds, cracked corn, or millet. Just make sure the food is placed on the ground, as they won’t fly up to feeders. In addition, having a brush pile will entice them to stay because it offers safety.
White-crowned Sparrows are known for their long migration journeys. This sparrow has been known to travel over 300 miles (483 km) in one night.
#7. White-throated Sparrow
- Zonotrichia albicollis
- Both sexes’ colors can vary; some can be more grayish or brownish on their chunky bodies.
- The Head is typically black and white striped with a yellow spot between the eyes.
- White throat patch, gray face, and small beak.
Look for White-throated Sparrows in the woods on the forest edge. They enjoy scratching at the ground under leaves or picking leaves up and moving them out of the way with their beak.
As you can see by the pictures above, their name perfectly describes their appearance. They are probably the only little brown bird in California with a bright white patch on their throats!
White-throated Sparrow Range Map
This species readily visits bird feeders, especially in winter. Feed them sunflower seeds or cracked corn and make sure some of the food ends up on the ground, as they won’t fly up to feeders. Luckily, I see these birds often at my feeding station! And having a place for them to hide and find shelter will entice them to stay.
#8. Chipping Sparrow
- Spizella passerina
- Brown-streaked back and wings.
- Rusty crown, grayish belly, and a black-streaked eyeline.
- Both sexes are slim with a long tail and medium-sized beak.
These small brownish birds are common across California.
Luckily, they’re easy to identify, thanks to their rust-colored crown. You’ll often see them at backyard feeding stations, eating sunflower seeds and other small seeds on the ground.
Chipping Sparrow Range Map
Look for them in the woods by grassy meadows. These sparrows are also common in suburban areas!
Chipping Sparrows have loud, trilling songs among the most common sounds of spring woodlands and suburbs. Their songs are long trill notes that they repeat, almost sounding mechanical. Listen below!
#9. House Wren
- Troglogytes aedon
These small, brown birds are common in California.
They have a short tail, thin beak, and dark barring on their wings and tail. Both males and females look the same.
Even though they rarely visit bird feeders, they are often seen zipping through backyards while hunting insects. A great way to draw these wrens to your yard is to create brush piles, which offer cover for them and places for insects to gather.
House Wren Range Map
To attract House Wrens to your backyard, try hanging a nest box, as these birds will readily use them to raise their young. Please pay attention to the entrance hole’s diameter and try not to make it any larger than 1 inch in diameter. By keeping the hole small, other birds can’t get inside to disturb the wren’s nest and babies. Interestingly, House Wrens are one of the only birds that will use a nest box that hangs freely and is not permanently attached to a tree or post.
One of the best ways to locate a House Wren is to listen for their distinctive song. The best way to describe it is a beautiful, energetic flutelike melody, consisting of rapid squeaky chatters and rattles.
Press PLAY above to hear a House Wren!
#10. Pine Siskin
- Spinus pinus
- Small, brown birds with dark streaks with fine yellow edging on their wings and tails.
- Sharply pointed beak and a short, forked tail and long pointed wingtips.
- Both males and females look the same.
Pine Siskins are social and search for food in flocks while chirping nonstop to each other. They don’t even stop chattering when flying!
Pine Siskin Range Map
These small brown birds mainly visit backyard feeders in California in the winter. They prefer to eat smaller seeds without tough shells, such as sunflower or Nyjer seeds. During warmer weather, they feast mainly on insects and other invertebrates.
Listen below to the Pine Siskin’s song, a twittering warble that rises and falls in pitch. They randomly throw in a “ZZZzzzzzreeee” that rises in pitch ever so often. You will notice they sound more wheezy than other finches.
#11. Bewick’s Wren
- Thryomanes bewickii
Bewick’s Wrens are most often found in dry brushy or scrubby habitats within their range. The best way to identify them is to look for their white eyebrow and dark barring on the tail.
As for their personality, these wrens are noisy and extremely active. It’s common to see them flicking their long tail sideways as they hop from branch to branch.
Bewick’s Wren Range Map
These small brown birds have declined in population in California, and one of the main reasons is the increased numbers of House Wrens. Both of these birds are drawn to the same nest sites. Unfortunately, when competition arises, the House Wren typically wins, as they are known to destroy nests and eggs.
Press PLAY below to hear a Bewick’s Wren!
These wrens are extremely vocal. The song that male Bewick’s Wrens sing varies from individual to individual and between geographic areas. The most common song you will hear has a pattern of a few introductory notes and ends with a high trill.
#12. Cactus Wren
- Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus
Cactus Wrens are common in the deserts of southern California. Look for a rather large brown bird with a long tail and long beak but short rounded wings. They are beautiful wrens with distinctive bright white eyebrows, brown spotted bellies, and a brown and white streaked back.
Cactus Wren Range Map
These birds are known for their energetic and bold personalities. If you spend enough time in their range, you are almost guaranteed to see them as they are always up to something. They can be found doing any number of things, such as singing from the top of a cactus, chasing each other around, mobbing predators that come too close, and fanning their tails.
Cactus Wrens are true desert birds and don’t need to drink water since they can obtain all their moisture from the insects, spiders, and fruit that they eat. It’s also common for them to take a dust bath on the dry, dusty ground before heading to their nightly roost.
Which of these brown birds have you seen in California?
Leave a COMMENT below! Make sure to mention where the brown bird was seen. 🙂