Photograph by cuatrok77
A list of the must-see birds of Florida would be filled with the likes of the White Ibis, the Greater Flamingo, Pelicans, Seagulls, or the Great Blue Heron – and why wouldn’t they? These are noteworthy birds that everyone should, at least once, witness in their natural habitats! But what about the less talked about birds - the avian residents that do not get too much time in the spotlight? Florida boasts some colorful exotic species due to its subtropical biome creating an ideal real estate for bird families to take roost! Here are ten birds in Florida you can find year-round in the Sunshine State!
Photograph by Mwanner
As the only endemic bird of Florida, the Florida Scrub-Jay truly deserves the title of ‘State Bird’ rather than the Northern Mockingjay which are commonly found in most of North America. At home in Central Florida’s oak-scrubs, these foot-tall blue-colored birds scour the ground for acorns and seeds as well as insects, small reptiles, and even young mice! On rare occasions, if food is scarce, they have been observed preying on the eggs of other birds. These birds are unafraid of humans, and will eat out of your hand, but do not offer food – it will disrupt their feeding patterns resulting in starvation or, in the best-case scenario, malnutrition during the colder months.
The Florida Scrub-Jay is known as a cooperative breeder, which means that instead of leaving the nest, fledglings will stay around for a few years to help raise their younger siblings. Their responsibilities include taking up guard duty, keeping watch for potential predators such as hawks and snakes, and feeding hatchlings. Since they cannot live outside of the oak-scrubs and combined with human land development, their population has dropped nearly 90% in the last century listing them as ‘Watch’ status. The Florida Scrub-Jay population rests between 7000 to 9000 individuals.
Photograph by Daniel Schwen
A slick, serpentine head slithers through stalks of underwater vegetation seeking unwary fish to skewer and consume. The S-shape rises above the surface, and attached to it is a larger body with…wings and webbed feet? This creature is no reptile, but an Anhinga! Also known as the snakebird or the water turkey, these birds can reach 3-feet in length. Often found in shallow, freshwater ponds, lakes, and streams – and occasionally saltwater lagoons and swamps – these waterfowl are perfectly adapted for hunting underwater more than ground or air. When spotting one in the wild, you may notice its tendency to indulge in sunbathing. Anhingas need to bask in the sun to thoroughly dry their 3.5-foot long wings due to the lack of oily feathers. Unlike birds such as ducks or pelicans, the Anhinga does not have waterproof feathers and cannot float for long periods. In exchange for relatively oil-free feathers, they can stay submerged much longer, allowing them to hunt for prey that would otherwise be off-limits to other birds.
The appearance between male and female Anhingas differ slightly. Males have glossy black-green feathers with a blue fan-like tail with white tips, while females have these colors replaced with pale-grey or light brown. They are famously known for serpentine necks and dagger-like beaks – which they will open slightly and then stab at their prey, impaling it, and bring it to the surface to eat. If an Anhinga comes across a much larger animal, they will continuously stab at it to determine if it is too big to eat. Typically, they devour sunfish, bass, and killifish.
Photograph by Terry Foote
The Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron deliberately sifts through the shallow marshes and swamps, searching for its favorite meal – crustaceans like crabs and crawfish. While lacking a long, slender beak like other herons, the beak of this species is much stouter and more robust, allowing it to crush through the fortified defenses of shelled prey. This lone hunter can also be found patiently perching on nearby branches hanging over the water, observing and waiting for the right moment to snap up a meal! They are called ‘Night’ herons because they prefer to feed at night but will eat at any time during the day if the opportunity arises.
‘Yellow-Crowned’ comes from the yellow plumage situated at the top of their head, but there are more unique features to behold! Beginning from under its dark-orange eyes starts a white streak of feathers covering its cheeks and reaches almost to the back of its head. The rest of the Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron’s body is painted with storm cloud grey feathers. The plumage on its 2-foot long wings resemble streaks of black paint on a freshly coated grey canvas. This bundle of features rests on top of yellow-orange legs with webbed feet, and, altogether, form a dapper 1 to 2-foot bird!
Photograph by Bernard DUPONT
I welcome to this list its sole molluscivore – an animal that exclusively feeds on mollusks – the Snail Kite! In the United States, the Snail Kite is only found in the freshwater environments of Central Florida and the swamps of South Florida, exclusively hunting Apple Snails. Its entire existence relies on the availability and easy access to this snail. Because of this, Snail Kites residing in the Everglades are endangered with only 400 mating pairs left, but overall the species is plentiful and labeled as ‘Least Concerned.’ Other factors affecting the availability of Apple Snails, such as dense exotic plant life and water quality, determine where and how often you will spot them in Florida. However, in desperate times it will stoop below its standards, feasting on crayfish and smaller fish before eventually moving on to a more snail-rich location.
Typically, the Snail Kite is 14 to 19 inches long with a 39 to 47-inch wingspan. A slight bit of sexual dimorphism – the distinct size and appearance between the genders of an animal - is present in this bird. Females of the species are 3% larger than their male counterparts with brown plumage containing white streaks, black eyes, yellow-orange legs, and thin curved bills. Males sport black-grey feathers, red eyes, reddish legs, and thin, hooked reddish-orange bills with black tips. Despite the Snail Kite’s impressive sickle-like bill, its meal typically is captured in its claws. The bill is instead used to extract snails from their shells!
Photograph by Dominic Sherony
Its music begins and ends with a sharp click, but between are variations of 6 to 7 rapid notes forming songs from simple to complex. As a petite singer in nature’s symphony, what else can you be classified as but a ‘songbird’ when your vocalizations are pure music. On the other hand, what can you be named but a ‘White-Eyed Vireo’ when your piercing white eyes sit nestled in a flare of sunshine on a cloudy-grey head? Combined with a dull green back and yellow flanks painted on a grey body, it may be difficult to see this 4 to 5-inch bird in the forests, thickets, mangroves, or overgrown fields it calls home. However, this is not intended for your detriment, but for raccoons and larger birds who would silence White-Eyed Vireo’s song in favor of a songbird dinner.
Living year-round in Florida, the little White-Eyed Vireo feasts almost exclusively on caterpillars but will add some variety to its diet in the colder months with berries and other insects. A stubby, straight beak with a slightly curved tip imposes a limit on what could be successfully captured, but it does its job well breaking through the skin of smaller bugs. There are several subspecies of White-Eyed Vireo, slightly altering the overall appearance of the songbird. Vireo Griseus Maynardi, from the Florida Keys, has a more greyed-out back with a whiter bottom, and the South Texan Vireo Griseus Micrus is a smaller version of the Maynardi. In North Florida, you may encounter Vireo Griseus Griseus which is overall smaller than the rest of the species with duller colors.
Photograph by Dr. Raju Kasambe
Measuring approximately 20 inches long, a chicken-like invader makes its way on to the list! Originally from Southeast Asian, thousands of Grey-headed Swamphen now inhabit the ponds and marshes of Southeast Florida, where they forage for aquatic plants. Using long red legs and toes, they balance on one while pulling at the stems of their preferred food, the Florida Spike-rush, with the other. Their long, grasping toes wrap around the plant material and deliver it to their red bill. Above their bill is another distinguishing feature - a red shield-like crest. However, these are small red spots on a body ranging from dark-violet to blue with cerulean-colored chest and wings. Though if you look under its tail, you will find hidden white plumage.
Wildlife biologist hypothesized the species spread from Pembroke Pines in 1996 – likely escaping from private collections or displaced from local breeders by Hurricane Andrew. In the mid-2000s, approximately 4000 were killed to eradicate the population, but they quickly rebounded, and local authorities ended the extermination program. Now, researchers are conducting further observations on the increasing population and how they will affect the environment in the future. Once categorized as a subspecies of Purple Swamphen, the line between the two became so unclear the Grey-headed Swamphen is now a superspecies.
Photograph by Ken Thomas
During Spring or the late Winter, on the marshes, pastures, or freshwater prairies of Florida’s Kissimmee and Desoto Regions, stalky birds begin to dance. Jumping, bobbing, deep bowing, running, and wing flapping are the signature moves of the Florida Sandhill Crane’s courtship ritual. At age two, the species seeks to establish an intimate bond with only one other crane for life! When successful, the pair could be bound to each other for their entire 20-year lifespan. The monogamous couple will lay up to two eggs every breeding season.
Measuring 47 inches long, with a proportional wingspan of 78 inches, Florida Sandhill Cranes are a full grey bird with a distinctive fleshy red patch of skin covering their forehead. Though similar in appearance to herons, these birds lack the heron’s fishing technique and fly with their long necks stretched out. Their large size and widespread population allow a diverse diet of seed, grain, berries, insects, mice, snakes, lizards, frogs, crayfish, and even smaller birds! To further cement the fact that these are indeed cranes, listen to this! Officials attempted to use them as surrogate parents for their nearly extinct distant relative, the Whooping Crane. The project was unsuccessful due to young cranes behaving like their foster parents – they attempted, and failed, to mate with Sandhill Cranes rather than other Whooping Cranes.
Photograpy by Mwanner
You are what you eat – or for the Roseate Spoonbill, you’re the color of what you eat! While their diet consists of insects, fish, plants, and amphibians, it’s the pigment from crustaceans they gobble down that applies deep pink plumage to their white bodies. However, the most intriguing feature is attached to their bare, light green head – the elongated grey bill with a spatula-like end! As they wade through shallow coastal waters and marshes, often with other ibises, herons, or cranes, their ‘spoonbill’ is swayed side to side scooping up and clamping down on anything edible. The Spoonbill’s tendency for foraging in large groups is a habit that follows them home. They will nest and roost in large colonies, often with their non-Spoonbill foraging companions.
The mass gatherings of these tall, 28 to 34-inch Roseate Spoonbills are a welcome sight for environmentalist as it is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. Often found in swamps, such as the Everglades, they can be a good indication of how human land development is affecting the area. Spoonbills need an enormous supply of food to sustain themselves and their offspring, meaning the numerous environmentally sensitive animals they eat are healthy and thriving.
Photograph by Frank Schulenburg
Clambering over the floating vegetation of marshes, rivers, and lakes of South Florida, the American Purple Gallinule takes a small flying leap to an adjacent patch, continuing its search for insects, amphibians, and, most preferably, hearty tubers in the mucky shallow waters – though they have been known to eat the eggs and hatchlings of other birds. The Gallinule seems to be in constant search of food to not only feed themselves but their young and their younger siblings! Up to 8 birds – as young as 10 weeks – have been observed feeding a mating pair’s offspring. This altruism appears somewhat restricted as these additional feeders are older siblings.
In the bright sunlight, the purple-blue gem of a bird will shine green and turquoise, perfectly complimenting a candy corn yellow and white beak, a pale blue shield-like forehead crest, and long yellow legs and toes. At 10 to 15 inches long with a 20 to 24-inch wingspan, this bird prefers to spend most of its time on floating plants than in the air but is known to stray far off-course, sometimes landing in Canada, California, or South Africa during migration. You can find this bird year-round in South and Central Florida or state-wide during the breeding season.
Photograph by AlbertHerring
Nature was a bit indecisive when she painted the Tricolored Heron. The 22 to 30-inch bird contains streaks of violet on a body of grey-blue feathers, a white stream leading down its neck to a pool of ivory belly feathers, and a yellow beak and legs. Unwilling to stick to set of colors, during breeding periods the heron transforms – its beak turns blue, the yellow legs become pink, and a little white plume of feathers extend behind its head! But it’s the Tricolored Heron’s neck and belly that distinguish it from other dark-colored herons – only this species has a white strip down its neck and a white belly.
They hunt alone, or nearby other wading birds, in estuaries, marshes, lagoons, and swamps feeding on fish, reptiles, and insects. Slowly, with occasional bursts of speed, the Tricolored Heron stalks prey making sharp turns and sudden stops. Mastering this level on maneuverability means perfecting control over its 38-inch long wingspan, to help reduce momentum at crucial moments before jabbing its spear-like beak into the shallow waters. The most unusual aspect of this bird, in my opinion, is that, at times, the Tricolored Heron’s call can sound like a choking donkey!