Looking to learn how to inspect and identify different varieties of birds?
Well then, you're in the right place!
In this guide, you'll learn:
- The most common pest birds in North America
- Bird background and history
- How to identify different birds
- Diseases different birds carry
There are a lot of birds that are commonly labeled, or seen as, pests.
They congregate around warehouses, trees, parks, and backyards, swooping down on any morsel of food left out, leaving their droppings all over the place, filling the air with raucous squawks and other noise, and just generally making a real nuisance out of themselves.
Not all birds are like that of course, but enough are that people want to know how to ID them so they can take steps to chase them away, or even eliminate them entirely.
Bird identification depends on a number of factors; size, plumage, banding, beak size, coloration, tail spread, and others. Some birds which appear very similar at first glance may actually turn out to be quite different from one another.
One may be a real pest while the other is beneficial. You need to be able to tell them apart so you don't kill or eradicate the wrong birds.
There's a lot of information to cover in there, so let's get started!
What Are Pigeons?
Pigeons are perhaps the most common pest bird in America today. For thousands of years, they were used to carry messages, provide sport for hunters, and used in racing tournaments.
Today, they can be found in every state in the Union, nesting on building ledges of skyscrapers, rafters of warehouses, empty floors of factory buildings and power plants, on statues, and monuments.
They leave their droppings everywhere they go . . . and they go a lot. As their droppings accumulate, they can clog gutters, discolor surfaces, damage roofs, and jam exposed gears in machinery.
Steel and stone structures can be damaged by a buildup of their droppings, and wood structures are especially vulnerable to damage. Their droppings also make floors and walkways slippery, leading to slips and falls.
Pigeons are known vectors for fleas, lice, mites, and a host of different bacteria carrying all kinds of diseases. They fly in flocks so where there's one, there's another. They lay two eggs at a time and mate for life.
They average between 11-14 inches long and weigh around 9-13 ounces (fully grown) and have a wingspan of 19-26 inches from tip-to-tip. They're larger and plumper than a mourning dove but smaller than a crow.
They're generally gray, bluish gray, or light gray, with two black bands on their wings which are broad and pointed. Their tail is wide and rounded at the tip.
At the other end, they usually have iridescent throat feathers that are tinted green or purple, sometimes both.
They're very fast fliers, averaging around 50-55 mph, and up to 90 mph for short distances in emergencies. They have an excellent homing sense and can return to their nest place from 400 miles or more.
Read Also: How Do You Get Rid of Pigeons?
What Are House Sparrows?
House sparrows, also known as English Sparrows, are another extremely common pest bird in North America.
They were imported from England in 1850 to help control the larvae of certain species of moths, only to discover too late they don't eat those larvae.
They have no native enemies and depend on humans for most of their nesting areas and food. They're very common, so much so that they're easy to overlook.
Unfortunately, they also carry a wide range of diseases such as St. Louis encephalitis, E. coli, salmonellosis, cryptococcosis, candidiasis, and histoplasmosis, to name just a few. Some of these they pick up from pecking at cow droppings.
Most of them are spread when dust from the sparrow droppings are sucked up by ventilation systems and spread throughout the building by the air conditioning ducts. House sparrows carry so many diseases they should be treated like they were Typhoid Mary and avoided at all costs.
If you're trapping or killing them, never touch them with your bare hands and always wear a dust mask over your nose and mouth when handling the said birds.
Sparrows are fairly small, not much more than 5-6 inches long when they're fully grown and weighing about an ounce. Males are brightly colored. They have gray heads, white cheeks, a black bib, and a rufous neck (reddish, or tinged with red) although some have necks that are dull gray.
Read Also: How Do You Get Rid of Sparrows?
Females, by contrast, are plain buff-brown with grayish-brown underparts. Their backs are generally striped with buff, black, and brown. The females are what most people think of when they think about sparrows.
Sparrows are noisy birds that fly down and eaves, limbs, and fences to peck at crumbs people leave behind. They often nest in traffic lights, on street lamps, signs, small crenelations on buildings.
They've lived around people for so many centuries that uninhabited forests and woodlands are noticeably free of them. Today they're found almost exclusively in cities.
What Are Woodpeckers?
The Saturday morning cartoons notwithstanding, woodpeckers are a true pest. They peck at wood for one of three reasons.
First, they're making a drumming noise to attract a mate or stake a claim on a particular territory. Second, they peck at the wood to forage for insects that burrow into trees. Third, they peck continuously at one point to hollow out a nesting site.
In any case, the damage from their pecking can be quite extensive. Trees can be weakened to the point of collapse, and homes can be quickly damaged to the point where it requires tens of thousands of dollars to repair them.
Read Also: How Do You Get Rid Of Woodpeckers?
Woodpeckers are usually found around wooded areas and they have a history of being particularly destructive to vacation homes or buildings that aren't continuously occupied.
Their relentless drilling can go unnoticed for long periods of time until major damage has been done.
Unfortunately, woodpeckers are migratory birds and thus are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes it illegal to, among other things, take, possess, or transport these birds.
If you trap a woodpecker and drive it a couple hours away to release it, you're probably breaking the law because you've taken it (trapped it), possessed it (during the drive) and transported it (also during the drive), whereas if you simply killed it outright, you're probably free and clear.
Woodpeckers come in a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes. We'll cover some of the more popular ones but rest assured, we haven't covered all of them.
The downy woodpecker is the smallest species of woodpecker in North America. They're just 6-7 inches long, which makes them difficult to spot.
They're common in forests and urban parks. They're black and white spotted on top with a white underbelly.
The males have a bright red spot on the back of their heads, while the females have black spot. Their bill is short, barely half the length of their head. Their tail is very stiff, acting as a tripod to balance against tree trunks when they're drilling into it.
The tail has the distinctive forked appearance that is useful for identifying woodpeckers. They're found year-round in Canada and the continental United States.
Hairy woodpeckers are almost indistinguishable from their downy cousins. The hairy woodpeckers are slightly larger than the downy ones, but the main difference is the size of their bill.
The bill is longer than half the width of their head and has a sharper appearance than the nub-like bill of the downy woodpecker.
Other than their overall size, and the size of their bill, the hairy woodpeckers have the same coloration as the downy ones. The quickest and easiest method of identifying which one is which is the length of their bill.
Red-headed woodpeckers are very easy to spot. Their red, white, and blue-black coloration is difficult to miss. Their winds are blue-black with a prominent patch of white on them.
These patches are especially noticeable during flight. Their underbellies are pure white while their head and throat are bright red.
The pileated woodpecker is the largest, reaching a length of 18-inches or more. They are black with bold white markings and a red head with a moderate crest sticking up and coming to a point at the back of the head.
The males also have a splash of red along their cheeks. The cartoon character, Woody Woodpecker, is modeled after the pileated woodpecker.
Northern flickers are buff or tan colored with black spots on them, along with a dark “bib” at the base of the throat where the chest begins.
They sport a long slender bill, and contrary to most woodpeckers, feed on ants and other insects on the ground.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are perhaps misnamed a bit as the red on their bellies is a faint smudge that is often difficult to see.
They appear similar to northern flickers but with much more red across the top of the head and around the cheeks.
The white/black bar pattern on their back is quite noticeable. Red-bellied woodpeckers are the most likely species of woodpecker to feed out of hummingbird feeders.
Ladder-backed woodpeckers white and black, mixed with gray and buff. Their upper parts sport a distinctive barring that resembles a ladder – hence their name – while their undersides are spotted.
The males have a reddish crown but the females do not.
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers aren't just a made-up name, although it often sounds like. They really do exist.
They're a breed of woodpecker with bold white wing bars, along with thick red, black, and white markings on the head and face, and ending with a yellow splash of color on the sides, back, and abdomen.
Their bill is short and stubby.
The video below will give you a glimpse on the most common backyard birds.
What Are Seagulls?
No discussion of pest birds would be complete without including these aggressive scavengers. Contrary to their common name, seagulls are found all over the United States, in the northern part of the Midwest.
Their real name is just “gulls”, and like ducks or other aquatic birds, they can live far from the ocean, and many of them do.
They are often seen in large, noisy flocks wherever food is available. They're found around fishing boats, picnic grounds, fairgrounds, parks, garbage dumps, dumpsters, and restaurants.
They glide easily through the sky, sometimes even seeming to hang motionless in the air – until they turn and twist and dive to fight over scraps of food.
As mentioned earlier, they're quite aggressive. If they lose their fear of people they can actually begin harassing them for food, trying to take it right out of their hands.
Signs along the Great Lakes and at amusement parks often warn tourists not to feed gulls because it will make them flock around you and never leave you alone for the rest of the day. This earns them their pest rating in this review.
There are several varieties of gulls. Here are a few of them.
Black-Legged Kittiwakes are about 16-inches in length with a wingspan of 35-40 inches. They have a white body and head, grey backs, and grey wings that are tipped in solid black.
They have black legs and a yellow bill. They mainly eat marine life, plankton, and fish. They are one of the few gulls that will actually dive into the water to snag small fish. They establish large, noisy colonies along cliffs.
Bonaparte's Gull is named after Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. They are about 17-inches long with a wingspan around 35-40 inches. Their head is dark gray to black, with a black bill.
They have a white neck, gray body, and wings, with orange feet and legs. Unlike most gulls, they prefer to nest in trees.
When they're inland, away from the water, they feed on insects they pluck out of the air. Around the water, they feed on marine worms, small fish, crustacea, and snails.
California gulls are larger than most gulls, 19-21 inches long with a wingspan that can reach 51-inches from tip-to-tip. They have a yellow bill, a white head, neck, and underparts. Their back and wings are dark gray.
Their legs and feet are greenish-yellow. They are usually found on the Pacific coastline from Mexico to British Columbia. Because Hollywood is in California, when most people see gulls in movies, they're seeing California gulls.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are doves and pigeons the same?
Yes and no.
They belong to the same family – Columbidae – and have many of the same features, but they are different species. Pigeons are larger and more aggressive than doves and are generally considered a pest, whereas doves normally aren't.
What kind of woodpecker is the worst?
There's no agreement on this one among ornithologists (people who study birds).
All woodpeckers can create a great deal of damage to trees and houses. As a general rule of thumb though, the larger the bird, the more damage it can do.
My cat has been hunting English sparrows. Should I be worried?
Cats are natural born hunters so you're not going to be able to stop your cat's hunting activities. The best advice to keep all their shots up to date and avoid letting them bite or scratch you.
That is the normal way cats transmit diseases to humans. Simply holding them or petting them shouldn't transfer any diseases.
Do gulls carry diseases like other pest birds?
Absolutely. Gulls who feed on garbage containing sewage or medical waste are virtually certain to be carrying various strains of E. coli.
There's no way to tell what a particular gull may have been eating in the past, so as a safety precaution, avoid physical contact with any gull you encounter.
Final Thoughts On Bird Identification
Sparrows, pigeons, woodpeckers, and gulls are the four main groups of pest birds in the United States today.
Knowing how to identify them when you see them will give you a leg up on controlling them if they're becoming a pest on your property. Like the old saying goes, forewarned is forearmed.