20 Types of Blackbirds in California! (ID Guide)

Did you see a BLACK bird in California?

Types of black birds in California

I’m guessing you need help figuring out which species you saw with black feathers. Well, you’ve come to the right place! To help you make an identification, I have included several photographs of each species and detailed range maps.

20 BIRDS THAT ARE BLACK IN California:

If you’re lucky, you may be able to see blackbirds at my bird feeding station right now! I have a LIVE high-definition camera watching my feeders 24/7. 🙂


#1. Red-winged Blackbird

  • Agelaius phoeniceus

Types of black birds in California

  • 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 bill.
  • Both sexes have a conical bill and are commonly seen sitting on cattails or perched high in a tree overlooking their territory.

During the breeding season, these blackbirds are almost exclusively found in California in marshes and other wet areas. Females build nests between dense grass-like vegetation, such as cattails, sedges, and bulrushes. Males aggressively defend the nest against intruders, and I have even been attacked by Red-winged Blackbirds while walking near the swamp in my backyard!

Red-winged Blackbird Range Map

red winged blackbird range map

During the non-breeding season, Red-winged Blackbirds spend much of their time in grasslands, farm fields, and pastures looking for weedy seeds to eat. It’s common for them to be found in large flocks that feature various other blackbird species, such as grackles, cowbirds, and starlings.

Red-winged Blackbirds are easy to identify by their sounds! If you visit a wetland or marsh in the spring, you are almost guaranteed to hear males singing and displaying, trying to attract a mate. Listen for a rich, musical song that lasts about one second and sounds like “conk-la-ree!”


#2. European Starling

  • Sturnus vulgaris

Types of black birds in California

  • A common blackbird in California, they are about the size of an American Robin. Their plumage is black and appears to be shiny.
  • Breeding adults are darker black and have a green-purple tint.
  • In winter, starlings lose their glossiness, their beaks become darker, and they develop white spots over their bodies.

European Starlings are incredibly common in California!

But did you know these birds are an invasive species? Back in 1890, one hundred starlings were brought over from Europe and released in New York City’s Central Park. The man responsible (Eugene Schieffelin) had a mission to introduce all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays in North America.

European Starling Range Map

starling range map

The rest is history as starlings easily conquered the continent, along the way out-competing many of our beautiful native birds. Their ability to adapt to human development and eat almost anything is uncanny to virtually no other species.

Here’s something amazing about these blackbirds:

It’s the magical way they travel in flocks, called murmurations. Check out the video below because it’s mesmerizing. 🙂

YouTube video

#3. Brown-headed Cowbird

  • Molothrus ater

Types of black birds in California

  • Look for a stocky, chunky blackbird with a thick, conical bill.
  • Males have completely black bodies with a brown head (hence the name). In poor light, it can be hard to tell that the head is actually brown.
  • Females are a plain brown color. There is slight streaking on the belly and a black eye.

In California, these blackbirds are naturally found in grasslands, brushy thickets, prairies, and woodland edges. However, they have greatly expanded their range due to human development, and they have adapted well to residential areas, pastures, orchards, and cemeteries.

Brown-headed Cowbird Range Map

brown headed cowbird range map

Brown-headed Cowbirds are considered “brood parasites.”

Cowbirds have a truly interesting way of reproducing. Instead of spending energy building nests and raising their young, they let other birds do it for them! Females deposit their eggs INSIDE the nests of other species, which means the “chosen” bird does all the hard work.
Types of black birds in California
Interestingly, over 220 species have been identified as having hosted eggs, from small kinglets to large meadowlarks. The other birds typically don’t realize the deception and raise the baby cowbird to adulthood at the expense of their own hatchlings!

Lastly, here is a question for you to ponder: How does a Brown-headed Cowbird know it’s one? It’s interesting to think about since they aren’t raised by their own species. But after they leave the nest, they never spend time again with whatever type of bird their host mother was!


#4. Downy Woodpecker

  • Dryobates pubescens

small black birds in

These white and black woodpeckers are common in California!

You probably recognize them, as they are seen in many yards visiting bird feeders.

Downy Woodpecker Range Map

This woodpecker species is easy to attract. The best foods to use are suet, sunflower seeds, and peanuts (including peanut butter). You may even spot them drinking sugar water from your hummingbird feeders! If you use suet products, use a specialized suet bird feeder.

Once you know what to listen for, my guess is that you will start hearing Downy Woodpeckers everywhere you go. Their calls resemble a high-pitched whinnying sound that descends in pitch towards the end.

YouTube video

Press PLAY above to hear a Downy Woodpecker!


#5. Dark-eyed Junco

  • Junco hyemalis

small black birds

Dark-eyed Juncos are one of the most common birds in North America. You can easily identify them by their smooth greyish-black feathers. Or look for a white flash from their tail feathers as they fly away.

Dark-eyed Junco Range Map

dark eyed junco range map

This species is found in pine and mixed-coniferous forests when they breed, but in winter, they are seen in fields, parks, woodlands, and backyards.

Dark-eyed Juncos have earned the nickname “Snowbirds” or “Winter birds” because they only appear in winter in many parts of their range.

Males sing a two-second loud, trilling song that can carry hundreds of feet away. In addition, both sexes also sing softer songs that are a mixture of warbles, trills, and whistles.


#6. Turkey Vulture

  • Cathartes aura

common vultures

The Turkey Vulture is a large black bird that is incredibly common in California. In fact, it is the most abundant vulture in the entire country.

They are relatively easy to identify, as they are all black, with a bald red head and a pinkish bill. The name derives from their loose resemblance to a Wild Turkey.

Turkey Vultures use their highly developed sense of smell to locate carrion. Their sense of smell is so sensitive that they can detect dead meat from 8 miles (13 km) away. These birds actually prefer to eat fresh food, and they try to get to animals as quickly as possible after their death.

Turkey Vulture Range Map

Turkey vulture. (2023, October 18). In Wikipedia.

These birds are dark, and they absorb heat easily. To cool themselves off, they defecate on their legs to cool the blood and help them moderate their body temperature. Let’s collectively say “Ewww” and move on!

When these raptors are frightened, they can be so full of meat that they cannot rapidly fly away. In this case, you may see them projectile vomit what they’ve eaten to lose weight and escape. If they target the predator’s face, the material can be blinding.


#7. American Crow

  • Corvus brachyrhynchos

american crow

  • A large bird that is entirely black with an iridescent sheen.
  • Long black bill, black legs, and black feet.

American Crows are adaptable birds that can be found in almost every habitat. The places they inhabit include woodlands, fields, rivers, marshes, farms, parks, landfills, golf courses, cemeteries, and neighborhoods.

American Crow Range Map

american crow range map

These completely BLACK birds are one of the smartest birds in California.

For example, they can use tools, solve problems, and recognize human faces. It seems that crows even do things just for fun! Seriously, if you search the internet, it’s easy to find videos of them using round objects to sled down roofs.

American Crows have a large vocabulary. Listen for any number of caws, rattles, cackles, and clicks. The most common sound is a “caw-caw.” (Listen below)

YouTube video

#8. Double-crested Cormorant

  • Nannopterum auritum

double crested cormorant

Double-crested Cormorants look incredibly unique, with many people thinking they appear to be a cross between a loon and a goose. These expert divers eat almost exclusively fish, which they catch underwater with their perfectly adapted hooked bills.

Double-crested Cormorant Range Map

double crested cormorant range map

One of the BEST ways to find these large black birds in California is to look for them on land with their wings spread out. Double-crested Cormorants don’t have waterproof feathers, so after swimming, they have to dry them.

Large colonies of these birds gather in trees near water, where they all build their nests in a small cluster of trees. Unfortunately, there can be so many birds so close together that their poop ends up killing the trees!

Double-crested Cormorants emit unique, deep guttural grunts, which I think sound more like a large walrus than a bird. Listen below!


#9. Brewer’s Blackbird

  • Euphagus cyanocephalus

brewers blackbird range map

  • Males are completely glossy black with bright yellow eyes. If they are in the sun, you may see hints of blue, purple, and metallic green reflecting off their plumage.
  • Females are plain brown with pale or brown eyes. They are dark brown on the wings and tail. They DO NOT have streaking, which differentiates them from female Red-winged Blackbirds.

Look for Brewer’s Blackbirds in California in a variety of habitats, such as marshes, forests, meadows, and grasslands. These birds also adapt incredibly well to the presence of humans and are common in backyards, golf courses, parks, and agricultural areas.

Brewer’s Blackbird Range Map

brewers blackbird range map

After the breeding season, huge flocks come together to travel and search for food in grasslands and farm fields. It’s common to see mixed flocks that also include cowbirds, starlings, grackles, and Red-winged Blackbirds.

Listen for a metallic, creaky “ke-see” song, which lasts a bit less than a second. Brewer’s Blackbirds are vocal, and there are a few contact (“tschup“) and alarm (“chuck“) calls you may hear that they use to communicate with each other.


#10. Common Raven

  • Corvus corax

common raven

  • Large bird that is completely black, including its eyes and bill.
  • The bill is hefty and thick.
  • In flight, look for their wedge-shaped tail.

Ravens are one of the SMARTEST birds in California!

For example, one study has shown that they are drawn to gunshots during hunting season to investigate the carcass but ignore other loud noises that don’t lead to food, such as air horns or car alarms.

Common Raven Range Map

Since they are so smart and adaptable, Common Ravens are found in many habitats. Look for them living near the edges of towns, especially in landfills that supply an endless amount of food. But ravens also have no problem living far away from civilization.

Common Ravens are impressive vocalists who make many different types of calls, from harsh grating calls to shrill alarm sounds. But the most common sound in the wild is a gurgling croak that rises in pitch.

Interestingly, they can mimic the sounds of many other bird species and even humans if raised in captivity.


#11. Yellow-headed Blackbird

  • Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

  • Males are unmistakable and feature a bright yellow head and breast that contrasts against a black body. They also have distinct white wing patches.
  • Females are brown overall. They can be identified from other blackbird species by looking for dull yellow plumage on their chest, face, and throat. Looking closely, you can also see faint white streaks extending down the breast.

During the breeding season, look for Yellow-headed Blackbirds in California in wetlands, where they raise their young. Females build nests in reeds directly over the water, and males aggressively defend their territories from other males and predators.

Yellow-headed Blackbird Range Map

These birds often share the same habitat as Red-winged Blackbirds. In these instances, the larger Yellow-headed Blackbird typically is dominant and gets to choose the prime nesting locations.

When males are trying to attract a mate, you can hear them singing from cattails, small trees, shrubs, fences, shrubs, or bulrushes in the morning and evening. The song typically begins with a few short raspy notes, followed by a screeching buzz.


#12. Pileated Woodpecker

  • Dryocopus pileatus

There are not many birds that will make you stop what you’re doing quite like a Pileated Woodpecker. These birds are HUGE, and adults can be up to 19 inches (48 cm) long and have a wingspan of 30 inches (76 cm)! For reference, this is about the size of a crow.

In addition to their large size, these birds are mostly black but with white stripes on their face and neck. Look for a large triangle-shaped red crest on the top of their heads. Males have a red stripe on their cheek, whereas the stripe is black on females.

Pileated Woodpecker Range Map

Pileated Woodpeckers are common in large, mature forests with lots of dead and fallen trees. They rely on rotting wood consisting of ants, wood-boring beetles, and termites to find food. Additionally, they will supplement their diet with fruits and nuts.

Incredibly, Pileated Woodpeckers will visit bird feeders! Yes, it’s possible to attract these stunning birds to your backyard. They are most often seen dining on suet. The below video was taken from my bird feeding station.

YouTube video

#13. Black-billed Magpie

  • Pica hudsonia

large black and white birds

  • A large black and white bird with a long tail.
  • In the right light, you can see beautiful blue iridescent feathers on the wings and tail.

It’s hard to miss these bold white and black birds in California!

Black-billed Magpies demand your attention. They are very social, noisy, and comfortable living amongst people and are commonly seen in smaller towns. Naturally, they live in open grasslands and plains and tend to avoid dense forests.

Black-billed Magpie Range Map

Being part of the Corvid family, Black-billed Magpies are incredibly intelligent. One interesting behavior is that they seem to have funerals when they discover a deceased magpie. Individual birds will begin calling loudly to attract more magpies, eventually having as many as 40 birds gathered for 10-15 minutes before flying away silently.


#14. Steller’s Jay

  • Cyanocitta stelleri

steller's jay pic

  • Larger bird with a black head, rounded wings, and a long tail.
  • A tall black crest on the crown of the head helps identify them.
  • Both sexes are half black and blue on their wings, belly, and tail.

You will find this bold blue and black bird in evergreen forests in California. Steller’s Jays often visit parks, campgrounds, and picnic areas.

Steller’s Jay Range Map

stellers jay range map

This jay species is very intelligent, bold, and noisy. You can attract them to your feeders by providing peanuts, larger seeds, and suet. Steller’s Jays are often nest robbers. They have even been known to attack or kill small adult birds like nuthatches or juncos.

Males and sometimes females have calls that sound like “shaack, shaack, shaack,” shooka, shooka.” Listen below.


#15. Great-tailed Grackle

  • Quiscalus mexicanus

  • These blackbirds are fairly large, slender, and have long legs,
  • Males are iridescent and completely black. Look for their bright yellow eyes and long V-shaped tails.
  • Females are about half the size of males. Their upperparts are dark brown, while below, they feature paler brown plumage.

Great-tailed Grackles are brash blackbirds in California, often found in large flocks. It’s common to see them living near people, such as at parks, farms, landfills, or neighborhood backyards. Naturally, they live in open forests, marshes, and scrub.

Great-tailed Grackle Range Map

Their range has spread over the past century because of their fondness for agricultural and urban areas. In fact, they are one of the fastest-expanding species in North America!

Interestingly, it’s common for “sex-biased” populations of Great-tailed Grackles to occur where female birds greatly outnumber males. This happens for two reasons.

  • #1. Females have a higher survival rate in the nest since they are smaller and require less food.
  • #2. On average, females live longer than males.

#16. Black Vulture

  • Coragyps atratus

black vulture - common vulture species

Black Vultures primarily eat carrion, but unlike most other vultures, they are known to kill animals to feed on fresh meat. It is not uncommon for them to prey on living skunks, opossums, and livestock, such as baby pigs, calves, and lambs.

Black Vultures are monogamous and will stay with their mate for many years. The loyal pair are excellent parents and will defend their nest, eggs, and young vigorously. Interestingly, these vultures build their nests on the ground in stumps, caves, thickets, brush piles, or hollow trees. No nesting material is used either!

Black Vulture Range Map

Look for Black Vultures in California in forested and open areas. They prefer to roost and nest in dense forests but forage for food along roads, fields, and other open spaces. Black Vultures are commonly seen hanging around Turkey Vultures, and it’s not because they are best friends.

Between the two species, Turkey Vultures have a MUCH better sense of smell. Black Vultures use this fact to their advantage and follow Turkey Vultures to a carcass. Often, the more aggressive Black Vultures will chase away their vulture cousins to have the food all to themselves. I wonder if Turkey Vultures ever feel used? 🙂


#17. Bronzed Cowbird

  • Molothrus aeneus

  • Both sexes are stocky, big-headed, and have a thick bill. They are larger than Brown-headed Cowbirds.
  • Males are brownish-black overall with a blue sheen on their wings and tail. The eyes are bright red during the breeding season and change to shades of brown the rest of the year.
  • Females are grayish-brown with faint streaks. They have a red eye, but it’s much duller and less noticeable than the males.

Look for these blackbirds in California in open areas, such as farms, golf courses, lawns, fields, and scrubby grasslands.

Like all cowbirds, these birds lay their eggs in the nests of other species. In fact, over 100 types of birds have been reported as hosting eggs from Bronzed Cowbirds.

Bronzed Cowbird Range Map

Orioles are especially susceptible to being parasitized by Bronzed Cowbirds. It’s so frequent that during spring, the singing of Hooded Orioles will actually attract Bronzed Cowbirds!

Their song is a low “glug-glug-gee,” which sounds a bit insect-like.


#18. Tricolored Blackbird

  • Agelaius tricolor

The first thing you will notice about Tricolored Blackbirds is that they look almost identical to Red-winged Blackbirds.

Here are two ways to correctly tell these two species apart:

  • Tricolored Blackbirds have a distinctive WHITE band of feathers below their red shoulder patch.

  • Their sounds are different. A Tricolored Blackbird sounds similar to a Red-winged, but it’s almost like it’s being squeezed. The calls have been described as buzzy and catlike.

The population of these highly social birds has decreased dramatically over the years. It was estimated they had a few million birds in the 1930s, which is now only around 300,000 individuals.

The reason for their extreme decline is the loss of their preferred habitat, which is wetlands. Many of these areas have been drained and converted to agricultural areas such as orchards, vineyards, and wheat fields.

Tricolored Blackbird Range Map


#19. California Condor

  • Gymnogyps californianus

types of vultures

California Condors have the LARGEST wingspan of any bird in California, stretching over 9 feet from tip to tip.

One of the rarest species of birds on the planet, the California Condor, went extinct in the wild in 1987 when all the remaining birds were captured. These birds were then raised and bred in safe environments with the hope of releasing the offspring back into the wild.

To increase numbers, biologists needed to encourage females to lay a second egg since condors only produce ONE egg naturally. To accomplish this feat, the first egg laid was removed and raised by humans who used puppets to mimic the parents!

California Condor Range Map

Luckily, the program worked, and condors were released back into the wild in California in 1991 and Arizona in 1996. Since then, they have slowly been increasing their numbers. In March 2020, there were 337 birds in the wild and 181 in captive breeding programs.


#20. Yellow-billed Magpie

  • Pica nuttalli

yellow billed magpie

  • As the name suggests, they have a bright yellow bill.
  • A large black and white bird with a long tail.
  • In the right light, you can see beautiful blue iridescent feathers on the wings and tail.

This boisterous white and black bird ONLY lives in California!

Even though Yellow-billed Magpies look similar to Black-billed Magpies, they are very easy to identify because of their bright yellow beak. The best places to find Yellow-billed Magpies are in the open oak woodlands of the Central Valley, the Sierra Nevada foothills, and the Coast Ranges.

Yellow-billed Magpie Range Map

yellow billed magpie range map

And if you find one of these birds, you will probably find many more. This is because they are incredibly social, even during the breeding season, when dozens of pairs often nest close to each other.


Learn more about other birds in California!


Which of these blackbirds have you seen before in California?

Leave a comment below!

The range maps below were generously shared with permission from The Birds of The World, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I use their site often to learn new information about birds!

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