The Birds

Least Tern (Photo: FWC)

The Least Tern was a common sight to Lewis and Clark on their expedition, but has since become endangered due to uncontrolled hunting and loss of habitat. The smallest of terns, it measures 9 inches long and weighs only an ounce. It has a glossy black crown, white forehead and undersurface, pale gray back and wings, and black-tipped yellow bill.

The Black-billed Magpie is a large black and white bird with a long tail and dark bill. They have a rapid, nasal mag? mag? mag? or yak yak yak, voice, and have been trained to imitate a human voice when kept in captivity. Magpies live in open woodlands, savannas,  or in brushy growth near streams.

One look at the Prairie Sharp-Tailed Grouse and it’s easy to see how it got its name. Its narrow, pointed tail is a distinguishing feature as it roams the grasslands, scrub forests, and arid sagebrush. The sharp-tailed grouse grows to length of 15-20 inches and sports brownish, speckled feathers.

Discovered by Lewis and Clark near Fort Mandan, North Dakota, the Prairie Horned Lark is brown in color with a black stripe below and a white stripe above its eye, a black crescent on its breast, and black “horns.” The horned lark is known for the way it travels; it walks instead of hopping, and will sing its “tsee-ee” from any slight elevation on the ground. It can be found in large fields, open areas, shoreline beaches, grasslands, and agricultural areas.

The Great Horned Owl is hard to mistake because of its large ear tufts or “horns.” It is a very large bird, measuring 18-25 inches long with a wingspan of 48-60 inches. The color of these owls ranges from very dark to almost as pale as the Snowy owl. The Great Horned Owl has a loud, booming “Whoo, whoo whoo, whooo, wooo-whooo…,” voice. It preys on medium-sized mammals and birds. It ranges from river bottoms to forests throughout the United States.

The Northern Flicker is a member of the woodpecker family but you won’t find them making a lot of noise like his relatives. It spends a great deal of time on the ground, searching for insects (especially ants), fallen fruits, and seeds to eat. The flicker varies in color depending on the region its found in: Eastern birds have a black “mustache” and yellow on the wings; Western birds have a red mustache and red on the wings; and Southwestern birds have a red mustache and yellow on the wings. They live in woodlands, deserts, and suburbs.

The Whippoorwill is a chunky, dark, wide-mouthed, insect-eating bird with a short curved bill. They are named for their distinct, repeated call: “Whip-poor-WILL!, Whippoorwill!, Whippoorwill!” The Whippoorwill stays close to the ground in river valleys or watered meadows, and is rarely seen.

Hutchin’s Goose was sighted by Lewis and Clark on May 5, 1805, above the mouth of the Poplar River in Montana. It is looks like a small version of the well-known Canada Goose. It is only about the size of a Mallard duck. The Hutchin’s Goose makes the same musical honking noise and flies in the same V-shaped pattern, that the Canada Goose does. It makes its home in lakes, bays, rivers, and marshes.

The Long-Billed Curlew is the largest member of the sandpiper family. Its total body length of 21-26 inches includes a bill that is up to 8 3/4 inches long. This long, down-curved bill (which gave this bird the nickname of “sicklebill”), and long legs are characteristic of shorebirds (wading birds). Shorebirds are associated with wetland or coastal areas. The Long-Billed Curlew, originally discovered by Lewis and Clark near Great Falls, Montana, was once a plentiful game bird of the Great Plains.

Western Willets are large, gray-brown shorebirds, with a long straight bill. They have a flashy black and white pattern on the underside of their wings, which identifies them in flight. They have a loud ringing “pill-will-willet” voice. They are found on coastal beaches, freshwater and salt marshes, lakeshores, and wet prairies. Lewis and Clark discovered them in May, 1805, at Fort Peck Dam, Montana.

The Pacific Nighthawk is not a hawk, although it acts like a hawk and catches flying insects on the wing. It is also not a strictly nocturnal bird; it may also appear during the day. It is mottled brownish-black in color, and has a long notched- or square-tipped tail and long pointed wings. The Pacific Nighthawk’s has a loud nasal call, “peent” or “pee-yah”, that is heard primarily at dusk. It likes to live in open woodlands, clearings, or fields, or in towns with roosting trees or fence posts.

Brewer’s Blackbird, named for the 19th-century ornithologist, Thomas M. Brewer of Boston, is a Robin-sized bird that makes its home in prairies, fields, and farmyards. The male blackbird is black with a purplish blue head and yellow eyes. Female blackbirds are gray with dark eyes. They call with a gurgle, squawk, and whistle. Brewer’s Blackbird is a very social bird and mixes with other species such as the red-winged blackbird and the brown-headed cowbird.

The Western Meadowlark is the state bird of Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming! It is a brightly-colored bird, about 8 1/2- to 11 inches long and weighing about 3 ounces. The Western Meadowlark is found in the fields, pastures, open grasslands, and prairies of the western and central U.S. It feeds on insects, worms, snails, spiders, grain and seeds.

The White-Rumped (Loggerhead) Shrike is slightly smaller than a robin, has a dark gray back, white breast, and black bill, tail, and wings. It has a black mask that extends across the eyes. It is known as the “loggerhead” shrike because its head is large in proportion to its body. The White-Rumped Shrike is also known as the “butcher bird” because it impales its prey – usually a small bird, mouse, or insect – onto a thorn or barbed wire fence. This practice allows them to eat larger prey that they cannot hold with their feet.

Lewis and Clark first noted the McCown’s Longspur in June 1805, near the Marias River in Montana. This bird is about the size of a sparrow. It has a dry, rattling call, but also will give a clear, sweet warble during a fluttering flight with wings raised high over its back. McCown’s Longspur makes its home in the arid plains, not liking moisture at all. It will abandon the areas in which it is normally found if the weather gets too wet.

Sage Grouse, or sage cock, or sage hen, or sage chicken, is the largest member of the family of hen-like terrestrial birds known as grouse. The Sage Grouse is about 25 to 30 inches long, has short rounded wings, a blackish colored belly, and long pointed tail feathers. Male grouse have a large white collar-like patch that conceals air sacs. These air sacs inflate during the male’s elaborate courtship of the female. The sagebrush plant is essential to the life of the sage grouse. They the soft plant, nest underneath it, and use it as cover from predators and weather.

The Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse was an important source of food for many Native Americans and early settlers of the West. Columbian sharp-tails are grayish-brown in color with black and buff markings, and white spots on the wing feathers. They feed on forbs (clover, goldenrod, dandelion, grass, grains) during the spring and summer, and fruit, seeds and buds of native shrubs during the fall and winter. They can be found in grassland, scrub forest, and arid sagebrush areas.

The American or Pale Goldfinch was spotted by Lewis and Clark near the Marias River, Montana in June 1805. Male birds are bright yellow with a white rump, black forehead, white edges on black wings and tail and yellow at the bend of the wing. Females are duller and grayer in color. Their voice is a bright “per-chick-o-ree” (sounds like “potato-chips”) usually heard in flight. Pale Goldfinches live in brushy thickets, weedy grasslands, and nearby trees.

First spotted by Lewis and Clark on the Kooskooskee (Clearwater) River March 3, 1806, the Dusky Horned Owl is a subspecies of the Great Horned Owl (see description above). This owl is the darkest colored of all the horned owls. Its home is the forests, deserts, open country, swamps, and city parks in areas of North America south of the tree line. The Dusky Horned Owl feeds on grouse, ducks, and rabbits as well as beetles, lizards, frogs, and skunks.

How do you tell the difference between an American crow and an American Raven? The raven is larger and has a heavier bill and a wedge-shaped tail. The raven’s throat looks shaggy because of the long, lance-shaped feathers that cover it. It often soars like a hawk through the coniferous forests and rocky coasts where it makes its home. The raven is a resident of northern Alaska and northern Canada south throughout the western United States and to Minnesota, the Great Lakes, and northern New England; also the Appalachians to northwestern Georgia.

Richardson’s Blue Grouse is more of a sooty-gray color than blue. Its neck is set off by white-based feathers on each side. The Blue Grouse’s voice is a series of deep hoots, “whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop” that increase in tempo and volume. It feeds only on conifer needles during the winter, but eats a more varied diet during the summer of insects, seeds, and berries.

The Pinyon Jay is a stocky, short-tailed jay bird, about nine inches long. They are gray-blue in color with white streaks on the throat. Pinyon Jays range from central Oregon and Montana southward to central Arizona, New Mexico, and northwestern Oklahoma; they do not migrate. Most of the Pinyon Jays’ diet is made up of pine seeds. They stay close to forests with pinyon-juniper, ponderosa pine, douglas-fir, redwood, lodgepole pine, fir-spruce, and aspen trees. Their voice is a high-pitched “caaa.”

Clark’s Nutcracker was named after William Clark who first saw the bird in the Rocky Mountains. It is somewhat misnamed, however, because it uses its long, stout beak to pry pine seeds from the cones of whitebark, pinion, and other types of pines. It usually stores more than enough for it to eat during the winter. These leftover seeds then sprout new trees in the spring. The combination of black, white and gray feathers make Clark’s Nutcracker a beautiful bird.

The Oregon Ruffed Grouse was noted by the Expedition on September 20, 1805, along the Lolo Trail in Idaho. This grouse is a gray-brown, chickenlike bird with a fan-shaped, black-banded tail. It can be found from the tree line in Alaska and northern Canada, south to California, Wyoming, Minnesota, Missouri and the Carolinas, and in the Appalachians to Georgia.

The Double-Crested Cormorants are 29 to 36 inches long and weigh up to 6 pounds. They have dark brown to black colored feathers, a yellow-orange throat patch, and a long hooked bill. Adult birds have tufts of feathers above their eyes. Double-Crested Cormorants are known for their feeding behavior in which they dive for fish, crustaceans, and amphibians, from the water’s surface. Their oil glands are not well-developed so they aren’t waterproofed very well. They can often be seen perched on a pole or tree with their wings spread apart to dry.

The Western Common Crow is a stocky black bird with a stout bill and fan-shaped tail. An intelligent, wary bird its voice is the “caw-caw” or “caa-caa” we’re all used to hearing. Western crows lives in the deciduous growth along rivers and streams, and in orchards and city parks. It was first noted by Lewis and Clark in November 1805 at Tongue Point, near present-day Astoria, Oregon.

The Northwestern Crow was spotted by Lewis and Clark at Fort Clatsop, Oregon, in March 1806. It is smaller and more slender that than the American crow, and is black with a purplish shine to its feathers. This crow makes its home on the shorelines, tidewater areas, and along the edges of coastal forest, from coastal southern Alaska to Puget Sound in Washington.

The Western Pileated Woodpecker, possibly the largest woodpecker in the United States, is black with white neck strips and a red crest. This woodpecker feeds on insects (it especially likes ants), wild fruits, and wild nuts. It pries off long slivers of wood to expose the ant colonies underneath, and then uses its long, pointed tongue to catch and eat them. Pileated Woodpeckers make their nests in trees and poles. Their nests are about 8 inches wide and 2 feet deep, and have been known to cause trees and poles to snap. This can be a problem if it happens to be an electric pole carrying someone’s electricity!

Winter wrens are somewhat misnamed because they are some of the first birds back from migration in the spring. Western Winter Wrens are more warmly colored than their eastern counterparts. They have a short, stubby tail, which they hold straight up in the air as they bounce around beneath the tangles and thickets of forests. They were discovered by the Expedition at Fort Clatsop, Oregon, in March 1806.

The Pacific (Northern) Fulmar is a stocky, gull-like seabird. They come in two colors: pale gray on the back and wings, with white elsewhere, and dark gray. In flight, they take several fast wing beats and then go into a stiffed-winged glide. They can be found in the open ocean from the Pacific Ocean south to California, and in the Atlantic south to North Carolina. Pacific Fulmars nest on cliffs and rocky islands, often in colonies of thousands of birds.

The Pacific Loon is a small loon with a straight, slender bill. It was once considered to be a form of the Arctic Loon, but recently was made a separate species. Pacific Loons feed on small fish and other aquatic life. They fish below the water’s surface assisted by well-developed air sacs, which allow them to stay underwater for extended periods. Female loons will lay two eggs, one a few weeks before the second. The first egg is also the first to hatch and it becomes the dominant offspring. It is always fed first, and in times when there is little food, is the only one fed.

Lewis and Clark made note of the Glaucous-Winged Gull on March 7, 1806, at Fort Clatsop, Oregon. It is a large white gull with pearly gray wings. The Glaucous-Winged Gull makes its home near rocky or sandy beaches, harbors, dumps, or the open ocean. You rarely find it away from salt water.

Often seen following fishing boats, the Western Gull commonly feeds on scraps thrown overboard by fish cleaners as well as small fish and marine invertebrates. It can be found along the west coast of North America and is hardly ever seen inland or beyond the reach of the tides. To break open the shells of their prey – like sea urchins and clams – the gulls drop them from high in the air to hard surfaces below.

The Lesser Canada Goose is just what its name says – a small version of the Canadian Goose. They are migratory birds, spending spring and summer in Alaska and northern Canada, and winters as far south as northern Mexico. They fly in the familiar “V” formation that allows them to cover 70% more distance than if they were flying alone.

The Whistling (Tundra) Swan is a large, white, very graceful bird. It is white with black legs, feet, and beak. The “whistling” part of its name comes from the sound made by the slow, powerful beating of its wings in flight, and not to its voice. It is one of two swans that are native to North America. They feed mainly on the tubers and roots of aquatic plants that grow at shallow depths in fresh, brackish, or salt water.

The Greater White-Fronted Goose was discovered by Lewis and Clark in March 1806, at Fort Clatsop, Oregon. It is a dusky brown goose with a white belly and white patch on front of its face. Its voice is a bark of “kla-ha!” or “kla-hah-luk!” These geese often migrate in large flocks at night, when they can be identified by their distinctive call.

The Ring-necked Duck gets its name from the brown ring around its neck, which is difficult to see from a distance. This duck is also called “ringbill” because of the white ring at the end of its bill. Ringnecks like small bodies of water and eat only plants, particularly wild rice, and insects. They get about 16 inches long and weigh 1 3/4 pounds.

Hairy Woodpeckers are black and white woodpeckers with long, chisel-tipped bills; males have a red head patch. They are from 9 to 13 inches long. The Hairy Woodpecker is a beneficial bird, feeding on many harmful insects, such as wood-boring beetles. It finds its food by feeling the vibrations made by insects moving about in wood. They also can hear insects munch on wood. Like other woodpeckers, it hammers on a dead limb to attract females and to establish its territory.

The Mountain Quail is the largest member of the quail family. It differs from other western quail because of its straight, narrow, black plume, consisting of two feathers. Mountain Quail eat buds, acorns, flowers, fruits, and seeds of shrubs and trees. They prefer dry mountainous areas, brushy woodlands, and chaparrals. This quail migrates on foot from higher elevations to protected valleys where it winters in coveys of 6 to 12 birds. Members of the covey seek warmth and protection by huddling in a circle, with their heads turned outward.

The Western Tanager, northernmost of the 242 species of tanagers, is commonly found in open coniferous forests. It is found in the western United States and Canada; it winters in Mexico and South America. The Western Tanager eats a diet of fruits and insects. It looks for food in the canopy of trees.

The Broad-tailed Hummingbird greenish in color and about 4 – 4 1/2 inches long. The male Broad-tailed’s wings make a cricket-like whistle in flight. It makes its home in mountain meadows, pinion-juniper woodlands, dry ponderosa pines, fir or mixed forests and in canyon vegetation. This hummingbird nests in the same tree or bush year after year. This is known as philopatry – faithfulness to the previous home area. It will return to the same branch or even build a new nest atop an old one.

The Western Mourning Dove gets its name from its low, mournful voice “coo-ah, coo, coo, coo.” It was discovered by the Expedition in July 1806, where Lolo Creek empties into the Bitterroot River, Missoula County, Montana. This dove is a soft, sandy buff color with a long pointed tail, and black spots on the wings. It is found in open fields, parks, and lawns with many trees and shrubs.

Forester’s Tern is white with pale gray back and wings, a black cap, and a deeply forked tail. It has an orange bill with a black tip. It prefers to live in inland marshes.

Franklin’s Spruce Grouse is a dark, chickenlike bird with a fan-shaped tail. The voice of the male birds is a low “krrrk, krrrk, krrk, krrk, krrk,” thought to be the lowest-pitched vocal sound of any North American bird. This grouse is sometimes called “Fool Hen” because it can occasionally be approached and caught. It is found in the Northern Rockies and Cascades.