Everyone has lists and seldom do any two lists agree.
But lists can be interesting fodder for discussion, argument, and sometimes agreement.
Some readers will wonder why I omitted some extra-popular beauties like the cedar waxwing, wood duck, blue jay, northern cardinal, meadowlark, bluebird, and painted bunting. Sorry, but sometimes a bunch of bling—I’m looking at you, Mr. Painted Bunting—is just too much. About a century and a half ago, John James Audubon declared that the painted bunting was spectacularly colored but simply too gaudy. Who am I to disagree with one of our country’s all-time masters of bird art?
With no more apologies, here are—in my opinion—my 10 favorite birds.
Roseate spoonbill: No problem or hesitation about picking the roseate spoonbill first. One of the most striking birds found in North America, they demand attention and they get it. A large wading bird with pink plumage, the roseate spoonbill can often be seen in small groups where they swing their spatula-like bills to and fro searching shallow water for crustaceans.
Red-headed woodpecker: Consider the crisp, solid hues of black, white, and red. Maybe a laundry detergent should use this bird as its spokes-model because its colors “never fade, never run.” The gorgeous red-headed woodpecker is so boldly patterned it’s been called a “flying checkerboard,” with an entirely crimson head, a snow-white body, and half white, half inky black wings.
Green heron: From a distance, the green heron is a dark, stocky bird hunched on slender yellow legs at the water’s edge, often hidden behind a tangle of leaves. Seen up close, it is a striking bird with a velvet-green back, rich chestnut body, and a dark cap often raised into a short crest. These small herons crouch patiently to surprise fish with a snatch of their daggerlike bill.
Purple gallinule: The purple gallinule is not only beautiful, it can practically walk on water. Strong, thick feet with long toes enable this wetland inhabitant to stride across lily pads and other floating aquatic vegetation, appearing to walk on water. While doing so, the purple gallinule is searching for any vegetable and animal matter found in, atop or under this floating vegetation.
Black-bellied whistling duck: The black-bellied whistling duck is a boisterous duck with a brilliant pink bill and an unusual, long-legged silhouette. In places like Texas and Louisiana, watch for noisy flocks of these gaudy ducks dropping into fields to forage on seeds, or loafing on golf course ponds. Listen for them, too—these ducks really do have a whistle for their call.
Green jay: The brilliantly-colored green jay ranges south all the way to Ecuador, but enters the U.S. only in southern-most Texas, where it is fairly common in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Birders quickly become familiar with the frequent “cheh-cheh-cheh-cheh” calls of the green jay along with its dry, throaty rattle. Green jays are colorful birds with a pale green back and underside, a black chest, a blue and black head and face, and yellow sides on their tail.
Great kiskadee: The great kiskadee is a treat for bird watchers and other visitors to southern Texas—and the birds won’t keep you waiting. Great kiskadees are large, blocky flycatchers, about ten inches in length. They have a large head, thick neck, and straight, very stout bill. Kiskadees are an eye-catching mix of black, white, yellow, and reddish-brown. The black head is set off by a bold white eyebrow and throat; the underparts are yellow. These are loud, boisterous birds that quickly make their presence known.
Yellow-crowned night heron: When it comes to patience, no bird can outdo the yellow-crowned night heron. It will freeze for an hour or more waiting to nab a small crab or other crustacean with a lightening jab. The yellow-crowned night heron is a short, stocky wading bird about 24 inches in length with a wingspan of a little under four feet. It has long yellow to orange legs, red eyes, a black bill, and a short neck. It has a slate gray body, a black head with a white streak on the side of its face and a yellowish-white crown.
Sandhill cranes: Sandhill cranes are very large, tall birds with a bulky gray body, long neck, long legs, and very broad wings. Crimson-capped, the head is small and the bill is straight and longer than the head. Whether stepping singly across a wet meadow or filling the sky by the hundreds and thousands, sandhill cranes have an elegance that draws attention. In winter they form immense flocks in places like Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Their bugling calls are unique and can be heard from miles away—they can help alert you to this species’ presence, particularly as they pass overhead on migration.
Audubon’s oriole: A predominantly Mexican bird, the Audubon’s oriole reaches the United States only in southern Texas. It is a slow-moving, quiet, and rather secretive oriole, living in denser vegetation than most other orioles and singing from inconspicuous perches.
A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.