19 Types Of Black Birds In California (With Photos)
Did you recently come across a black bird in California, and would like to know what species it was?
Identifying black birds is not as easy as it might seem, since there are many bird species in California that are either completely black or partially black.
To help you identify the bird you saw, we’ll cover all the blackbird species that can be seen in California, as well as other types of black-colored birds.
What types of black birds can you see in California?
The 19 types of black birds found in California are:
- Brown-headed Cowbird
- Red-winged Blackbird
- Common Grackle
- European Starling
- Rusty Blackbird
- Tricolored Blackbird
- Brewer’s Blackbird
- Bronzed Cowbird
- Orchard Oriole
- Yellow-headed Blackbird
- Great-tailed Grackle
- Hooded Oriole
- Scott’s Oriole
- Western Meadowlark
- Bullock’s Oriole
- Common Gallinule
- American Coot
- American Crow
While many of these black birds are year round residents of California, others only occur in the state during the nesting season in summer.
Yet other birds are winter visitors in California, and some are vagrants that only rarely occur in the state of California.
Now let’s dive into the details, and take a closer look at each of these species in order to get the full scoop:
Scientific name: Molothrus ater
Cowbirds also belong to the blackbird family, but differ in one key characteristic: they are brood parasites.
The Brown-headed Cowbird is a brood parasite in California. A brood parasite is a bird that doesn’t build its own nest, but instead lays its eggs in the nests of other birds.
Brown-headed Cowbirds have been reported to lay their eggs in the nests of hundreds of other bird species.
Only a few of the host birds targeted by Cowbirds identify the parasitic eggs as alien, and abandon them. Most hosts incubate the Cowbird eggs and raise the resulting nestlings as if they were their own.
If you see a warbler or other small bird in California feeding a young bird twice its size, you can be sure that it’s raising a Cowbird.
Adult male Brown-headed Cowbirds have a chocolate-brown head and a glossy black body. Females, on the other hand, are dull gray-brown.
Cowbirds got their name because they like to follow buffaloes and cattle around in order to eat insects and other small animals that are disturbed by large animals.
This blackbird can be seen in California year-round, though it tends to move around a lot in the non-breeding season searching for food.
Brown-headed Cowbirds typically forage for food on the ground in flocks that also contain other types of blackbirds and starlings.
Brown-headed Cowbird sound: Brown-headed Cowbirds are noisy blackbirds that produce a variety of sounds that include clicking and whistling sounds.
(Source: Thomas Magarian, XC527677, www.xeno-canto.org/527677)
Scientific name: Agelaius phoeniceus
The Red-winged Blackbird is one the most abundant birds in California, and it is definitely the most common black bird found here during the summer.
The great thing about these California blackbirds is that you can easily distinguish males from females.
Male Red-winged Blackbirds are completely black except for the bright red patches on their wings. In contrast, females (and juveniles) are a blackish brown color with white streaks.
Generally speaking, this blackbird lives in open fields and near water. It is often found in marshes, wetlands, and around lakes.
To find food, the Red-winged Blackbird travels many miles a day, especially outside of the nesting season.
While this blackbird is primarily a seed-eater during fall and spring, it switches to feeding almost exclusively on insects during summer.
Depending on where it is found, the Red-winged Blackbird is either a seasonal migrant (in the north of its range), or a resident (in the south of its range).
Red-winged Blackbirds roost in flocks up to millions of birds strong, creating a deafening noise with their rapidly beating wings.
In spring, male Red-winged Blackbirds are usually the first ones to arrive in order to claim a desirable territory before the females arrive.
During the mating season, the male red-winged blackbird will sing from a conspicuous perch and display the red shoulder patches on his feathers in order to attract the attention of females.
After a female chooses a mate, she builds her nest over shallow water in a thick stand of vegetation. Her chosen mate then aggressively defends the nest against other blackbirds.
The most successful males are bigamous, and can mate with multiple females at the same time.
Red-winged Blackbird song:
The Ok-ra-lee song of a male Red-winged Blackbird is a familiar sound often heard at wetlands across California.
(Source: Manuel Grosselet, XC669259, www.xeno-canto.org/669259)
Scientific name: Quiscalus quiscula
From a distance, a Common grackle seems to be an entirely black bird, making it simple to confuse it with a crow.
But in contrast to a crow, the Common Grackle has a pointed beak that is formed like a cone, as well as eyes that are bright yellow, and a long tail that is shaped like a wedge.
In California it lives in open spaces such as meadows, parks, and fields, as well as suburban and residential regions
Male Common Grackles have shimmering purple coloration on their heads, breasts, and necks, as well as other parts of their bodies.
During the nesting season, the females construct large nests in which they will lay a clutch of about five eggs.
In northern parts of its range, the Common Grackle is a migratory summer visitor, but in California it can be found year round.
It is a member of the New World family of blackbirds, which contains some of the most common birds in North America, many of which like to gather in large flocks and make a lot of noise.
On farms, Common Grackles can congregate in huge flocks to feed on crops and grain, and to roost, which can cause a problem to California farmers.
Because it is such a versatile species, the Common Grackle can thrive in many different environments.
Common Grackle sound:
(Source: Ted Floy, XC365161, www.xeno-canto.org/365161)
European Starling (Common Starling)
Scientific name: Sturnus vulgaris
The European starling is a common and highly successful bird in California.
While European Starlings don’t belong to the blackbird family, adults are uniformly black with a glossy sheen, and so look superficially similar to many blackbirds.
During winter, European Starlings are also covered with light spots, which can be a great characteristic to identify them.
This species is originally from Europe, Asia, and North Africa, but it was introduced to North America and many other parts of the world, where it has established itself as a successful breeding species within a short period of time.
European Starlings inhabit open country with few trees as their original habitat, but they are also among the most successful urban birds, and are especially common in parks and gardens.
While European Starlings nest in tree holes in the wild, they are also known to nest inside buildings and nest boxes in urban settings.
Unfortunately, native birds are sometimes driven out of their nesting sites by competing Starlings.
Similar to grackles and other blackbirds, European Starlings form large flocks outside of the nesting season.
These flocks can contain more than a million birds, and can be seen performing amazing aerial acrobatics.
European Starling song:
(Source: Elias A. Ryberg, XC742495, www.xeno-canto.org/742495)
Scientific name: Euphagus carolinus
The Rusty Blackbird is substantially less of a problem to agricultural activities than some of the other members of the blackbird family.
This is because this blackbird breeds in regions that are remote and are located in marshy, non-cultivated areas.
Adult male Rusty Blackbirds are uniformly black, while females and juveniles are brownish gray.
During the autumn months, the plumage of the male Rusty Blackbird transforms into a drab, rusty brown color.
During the fall migration it is easiest to spot Rusty Blackbirds in the state of California.
This is because this blackbird travels south from its main breeding grounds in Canada, and passes through California in large flocks at this time.
While most Rusty Blackbirds pass through California on their fall and spring migrations, some spend the whole winter, and can be seen in California from September through late April.
The preferred habitat of Rusty Blackbirds is swampland, marshy areas, and the banks of lakes and rivers.
Unfortunately, there has been a dramatic decline in the population of Rusty Blackbirds, and it is now on the red list of the IUCN.
Rusty Blackbird sound:
(Source: Paul Driver, XC468246, www.xeno-canto.org/468246)
Scientific name: Agelaius tricolor
Male Tricolored Blackbirds look superficially similar to Red-winged Blackbirds. Their whole body is iridescent black, except for a small red shoulder patch with a white streak underneath.
They can be distinguished from Red-winged Blackbirds by virtue of their smaller red shoulder patch, as well as the broader white line underneath it.
Tricolored Blackbirds used to be very common in California, with flocks that numbered in the millions.
However, due to the extensive destruction of coastal swamps and marshes, they are now an endangered species, with less than forty thousand adults accounting for the entire California population.
Fortunately, Tricolored Blackbirds have started breeding in agricultural areas in addition to marshes, which means there is hope for the survival of this species.
Tricolored Blackbird sound:
(Source: Paul Marvin, XC393990, www.xeno-canto.org/393990)
Scientific name: Dolichonyx oryzivorus
The Bobolink is another species of blackbird found in California.
It is an increasingly rare blackbird that breeds in southern Canada and the northern United States. Its preferred habitat are large fallow fields.
Adult male Bobolinks are mostly black, but have a cream colored cap, as well as patches of white on their wings and back.
Females and juveniles of this blackbird species are much more inconspicuous. They are brown on top, and pale yellow on the bottom, and they also don’t have a white wing patch.
In the spring, the males engage in a conspicuous territorial display known as “helicoptering,” during which they hover in the air and sing voluminously to attract females and establish their territory.
Unfortunately, Bobolink numbers have decreased not just in places where they breed but also in locations where they spend the winter.
This decline is caused by habitat degradation and farming practices that involve haying when these blackbirds are still nesting.
These blackbirds are long distance migratory birds that spend the cold season in Central America.
This blackbird is most commonly spotted in California during fall and spring, when it passes through the state on its migration.
(Source: Jim Berry, XC729869, www.xeno-canto.org/729869)
Scientific name: Euphagus cyanocephalus
In a large portion of its range, the Brewer’s Blackbird appears to choose environments that have been shaped by humans, rather than natural ones.
However, in areas where this blackbird competes with the Common Grackle, it instead prefers more rural areas.
Similar to other blackbird species, Brewer’s Blackbirds like to congregate in large flocks in autumn, and feed on leftover grains found on farmland after the harvest.
The Brewer’s Blackbird is about the size of a robin and has long legs and a long tail. When birds are seated on the ground or perched on a branch, their tails give the appearance of being broadened and rounded.
Adult male Brewer’s Blackbirds are completely black with a purple sheen on their head that fades into a greenish hue on the rest of their body.
In contrast to this, females and juveniles of this blackbird are a more uniform brown color, with their wings and tails being the darkest.
You can find Brewer’s Blackbirds in open habitats, such as grasslands and meadows, but also more urban areas, such as parks and lawns.
Of all the species of blackbirds found in California, the Brewer’s Blackbird is relatively rare, and is mostly observed as a rare passage migrant that can be seen during spring and fall.
Brewer’s Blackbird sound:
(Source: Meena Haribal, XC481215, www.xeno-canto.org/481215)
Scientific name: Molothrus aeneus
The Bronzed Cowbird is a sturdy blackbird that has a curved, pointed beak. Its name comes from the bronzed sheen on the black plumage of the males.
Similar to Brown-headed Cowbirds, Bronzed Cowbirds are also brood parasites that don’t build their own nest, but instead lay their eggs into the nests of other birds.
The feathers on the male’s nape are fluffed up during mating displays, which contributes to the thick appearance of the male’s neck.
Males also perform a “helicoptering” flight display in order to attract females.
Adult males of this blackbird are uniformly black with a bronze shimmer, and have red eyes. The females in California are gray brown.
These blackbirds like to forage for food in large groups, primarily on the ground, where they look for insects and seeds.
You can find Bronzed Cowbirds in open areas, such as farmland and prairie, and more urban areas, such as golf courses.
Bronzed Cowbird sound:
(Source: Manuel Grosselet, XC712996, www.xeno-canto.org/712996)
Scientific name: Icterus spurius
This Oriole got its name from its preference for orchards and open woods. It is a rare visitor in California, and is most commonly found during the winter months.
Unlike the females (which are dull yellow California birds), males are a dark orange color with a black head, throat, upper back, wings, and tail.
Young males resemble females in color, and gradually become more and more black over their first two years.
Early in the summer, the Orchard Oriole feeds on insects, but later it will switch to eating wild fruit as they become mature.
After their young have fledged, parent Orioles will bring them to feeding stations (especially if you have a nectar feeder.
Some people mistakenly believe that the Orioles have departed since they do not see them at their feeders very often during the peak of the summer.
However, the birds are still present nearby, but are simply focused on catching insects to bring back to their nestlings.
The Orchard Oriole is one of the birds that gets here very late in the spring and is one of the ones that leaves quite early in the fall.
Orchard Oriole sound:
(Source: Paul Driver, XC651124, www.xeno-canto.org/651124)
Scientific name: Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus
Yellow-headed Blackbirds are more common throughout the western United States, including California.
Adult male Yellow-headed Blackbirds stand out thanks to their distinctive yellow heads and chests, paired with a jet black body.
Females and immatures of this blackbird have drab yellow heads and are dark brown rather than black.
Male Yellow-headed Blackbirds will often mate with a number of different females during the breeding season, forming small colonies of nests.
Outside of the breeding season, Yellow-headed Blackbirds gather into massive flocks, frequently mingling with other species of blackbirds, and feed on leftover grains on farmland.
At this time it is common for this blackbird to forage in fields and spend their winters in open cultivated areas.
During the summer months, they feed mostly on insects and other small invertebrates.
Typically, Yellow-headed Blackbirds breed in lowland areas with wetlands and dense growth of cattails.
In California, this blackbird is seen all year round.
Yellow-headed Blackbird sound:
(Source: Thomas Magarian, XC355547, www.xeno-canto.org/355547)
Scientific name: Quiscalus mexicanus
The Great-tailed Grackle is a blackbird species that breeds in the southern states, with its range extending to the north as far as the southern Midwest.
In California, this blackbird species only occurs as a rare vagrant.
Adult males have yellow eyes that stand out against their iridescent black bodies. Juveniles and adult females are dark brown on top and lighter brown on the bottom.
One of the best distinguishing features of these large black birds is their extra long, wedge-shaped tail.
The central part of its tail hangs down, which creates a V-shaped cross section that is highly characteristic for these blackbirds.
Females of this blackbird species have a shorter tail and a smaller body than males, and almost look like a distinct species.
Great-tailed Grackles frequently gather in loud roosts in trees and on telephone wires.
They compete over garbage in urban areas, and peck for food with other blackbird species on fields, golf courses, and lawns.
In the breeding range of this blackbird, breeding and roosting locations are provided by the large trees that border swampland, lagoons, and marshes.
Outside of the breeding season, Great-tailed Grackles forage on open fields and can be found in cultivated areas, as well as urban settings, such as large lawns in parks.
Great-tailed Grackle sound:
(Source: Manuel Grosselet, XC682582, www.xeno-canto.org/682582)
Scientific name: Icterus cucullatus
The Hooded Oriole is a common breeding bird in California and other parts of the southwestern United States.
The Hooded Oriole is a medium-sized bird that is highly conspicuous due to its flaming yellow belly and neck.
In addition to the bright yellow parts, its throat, back, tail, and wings are a stunning jet black color.
The Hooded Oriole has taken a liking to nesting on the palm palms that are common in suburban California.
The range of the Hooded Oriole in the Southwest has expanded as a result of both an increase in the number of palm trees and an increase in the availability of nectar bid feeders.
One of the favorite foods of this oriole is nectar, and as a result, they are on occasion observed at California bird feeders that offer nectar or grape jelly.
Hooded Oriole song:
(Source: Richard E. Webster, XC630676, www.xeno-canto.org/630676)
Scientific name: Icterus parisorum
Scott’s Oriole is commonly found in the Southwestern part of the United States, and is a common breeding bird in California.
Scott’s Oriole is a medium-sized bird that is highly conspicuous due to its flaming yellow underside.
However, only the lower part of this bird is yellow in color. The head, back, breast, tail, and wing of the bird are a stunning jet black color.
A type of iceterid, it is most famously known as the desert or mountain oriole, as it prefers to live in high desert regions or along mountain slopes in Central Mexico and the southern United States.
It frequents both dense oak forests as well as more open landscapes with scattered trees and yucca plants.
The favorite food of this oriole is yucca nectar, and as a result of this, they are on occasion observed at California feeders that offer nectar or sugar water.
Scott’s Oriole song:
(Source: Lauren Harter, XC237175, www.xeno-canto.org/237175)
Scientific name: Sturnella neglecta
The Western Meadowlark closely resembles the Eastern Meadowlark, but is found in more western areas of North America.
And although the two meadowlark species closely resemble each other, and their ranges overlap considerably, they almost never form hybrids.
This species is a favorite among birdwatchers due to the fact that the male likes to sing loudly from a conspicuous perch, or while flying over its territory.
Combined with its striking black and yellow coloration, this makes the Western Meadowlark a pure joy to observe.
The distinct songs of the two species of meadowlark allow for easy differentiation between them.
The Western Meadowlark is a common breeding bird in California.
Western Meadowlark song:
(Source: Nicolas Martinez, XC741545, www.xeno-canto.org/741545)
Scientific name: Icterus bullockii
Bullock’s Oriole is another western bird species that can be regularly seen in California.
Adult males are flaming orange coupled with a jet black back and a black neck. They also have a large white patch on the wing, and an orange face with a black throat.
Juveniles and females are more grayish-yellow with orange on their face and chest. Endemic to the western United States, it spends the winter in Mexico.
Bullock’s Oriole forages for food on the upper branches of trees and shrubs, searching for fruits and insects.
You can encounter Bullock’s Orioles in open woodlands close to rivers and streams, as well as in parks and orchards.
Bullock’s Oriole sound:
(Source: Jarrod Swackhammer, XC540560, www.xeno-canto.org/540560)
Scientific name: Gallinula galeata
The Common Gallinule is a type of marsh bird that is medium in size and has long green legs and toes.
Both the male and female have a charcoal black body with a white stripe running down the side, and their outer tail feathers are also white.
Common Gallinules can swim in the water like ducks or geese, and are also able to walk on top of floating plants. They have a habit of walking in a crouching position and regularly twitching their tail up.
Common Gallinules usually remain in close proximity to the protection offered by marsh plants, although they sometimes swim in open water.
Their favored habitat is found in ponds, marshes, and lakes that have sufficient aquatic plants mixed in with open water. When foraging, they will also undertake excursions to canals and ditches.
In California, the Common Gallinule is a relatively scarce summer visitor breeding in marshes and lakes.
Common Gallinule sound:
(Source: Ricardo Gagliardi, XC470873, www.xeno-canto.org/470873)
Scientific name: Fulica americana
American Coots are regularly observed congregating in huge flocks on open water (especially during migration).
Coots range in color from dark gray to black and have a white beak and forehead, as well as a red eye.
While American Coots are water birds, they don’t have webbed feet like ducks, but instead have broad, lobed toes.
In addition to their ability to swim on top of the water, Coots are also strong divers, and often forage for food on the bottom of shallow lakes and ponds.
Bald Eagles like to prey on Coots, and will try to tire out an individual by repeatedly forcing it to dive until it is too exhausted and gives up
American Coots may be found in a variety of aquatic habitats, including urban park ponds, reservoirs, marshes, and lake shores.
Its nest is a floating platform that is anchored to the surrounding plants.
This bird is seen in California during the winter months, wintering in large flocks on lakes and marshes.
American Coot sound:
(Source: Paul Marvin, XC665161, www.xeno-canto.org/665161)
Scientific name: Corvus brachyrhynchos
American Crows are large California birds that entirely black, including their beaks, legs, and eyes. Both adults and immature birds look the same.
This is one of the most intelligent birds in the world. It also happens to be one of the most sociable, and it likes to pass the time by harassing other birds.
The American Crow builds a big stick nest in trees, which it likes to reuse for many years. Old crows nests are also used by many other birds, including raptors and owls in California.
Similar to vultures and birds of prey, American Crows like to feed on roadkill, but are rarely hit by cars themselves.
Outside of the breeding season, it forms massive flocks, sometimes topping out at thousands of birds.
American Crows are common in California in open forests and woodlands, as well as farmland and urban areas such as parks, golf courses, and large gardens.
American Crow sound:
(Source: Thomas Magarian, XC543337, www.xeno-canto.org/543337)
What are the most common black birds found in California?
The most common black birds found in California are Red-winged Blackbirds. They are regular guests at bird feeders, and common birds throughout California.
Outside of the breeding season Red-winged Blackbirds like to form large flocks that feed on leftover grains on harvested fields.
How to attract birds to your yard in California?
The top 5 things you can do to attract birds to your yard in California are as follows:
- Set up a feeder with sunflower seeds or a seed mix
- Set up a bird bath
- Plant shrubs to provide nesting opportunities
- Plant native fruiting plants
- For attracting orioles, provide a feeder with nectar or grape jelly
What are the biggest black birds in California?
The biggest black bird in California is the Common Raven, which has a wingspan of up to 51 inches.
Slightly smaller than a Raven is the American Crow which has a wingspan of almost 40 inches.
So if you see a big black bird in the golden state, you’re probably looking at either a Common Raven or an American Crow.
If you enjoyed this article, check out our guide to the birds of prey of California.