Northern Flicker Few states can match Alabama’s rich diversity of birds. Their songs, colors and habits enrich our lives like no other animal group, and they offer tremendous recreational, economic, psychological, and scientific benefit. Alabama’s relatively mild winters and great variety of habitats attract and support winter visitors and summer-breeding birds alike. In addition, Alabama lies along the migration routes of many species that find it an attractive place to rest and refuel as they make their long journeys between their wintering grounds and their nesting areas in North America. Currently, the Alabama Ornithological Society recognizes 433 species that have been seen in the state. From this list, about 158 are considered regular breeders within Alabama’s borders, around 80 species are migrants, and another 175 or so are classified as winter residents. Within these groups, a significant diversity of forms and habits can be found. This account examines some of that diversity by looking at the major groups of birds that occur in Alabama and also makes some recommendations on where to watch and study birds in the state.
Male Wood Duck These web-footed birds include the ducks, geese, and swans (Order Anseriformes). Their relatively long necks and often stubby, broad beaks make them an easy group to recognize. The 20 or so species that regularly inhabit Alabama’s many ponds, rivers, lakes, and coastal waters are excellent swimmers. Many species, including the lesser scaup, hooded merganser, ruddy duck, and bufflehead, are superb divers and feed on fish and aquatic invertebrates such as snails and mussels. Others, like the Canada goose, mallard, gadwall, American wigeon, and blue-winged teal, are dabblers who feed on vegetation and animal life near the surface or by grazing. Almost all of the waterfowl that come to Alabama are winter visitors escaping the cold, snow, and ice at higher latitudes that make finding food difficult during the winter months. These migrants typically start arriving in the state in late September and October and set out for their more northern breeding grounds in March and April. Only the wood duck is a common year-round resident, although domestic Canada geese and mallards have been introduced and have become pests in many areas, especially at golf courses and parks. Domestic waterfowl introduced into the wild pose problems because they compete with native species, alter habitats, and spread disease. Many of the waterfowl, as well as the wild turkey, northern bobwhite (Order Galliformes), American woodcock, Wilson’s snipe (Order Charadriiformes), and mourning dove (Order Columbiformes), are also considered gamebirds and are regularly hunted during the appropriate season.
The waders include the herons, bitterns, egrets, ibises, rails, and the wood stork (Order Ciconiiformes). These birds tend to be tall and typically have long necks, long skinny legs, and toes that allow them to move efficiently through shallow, mucky waters in search of fish, frogs, snakes, and other aquatic life. Some, like the herons, egrets, and bitterns, jab their prey with their dagger-like beaks, while others, like ibises and storks, move their sensitive bills constantly through the water and quickly grab anything that feels like food. Approximately 15 different species of waders are found in the state. The great blue heron and the white great egret are two of the largest and most commonly occurring species. Most waders are active during the day (diurnal), but two species, the black-crowned night-heron and yellow-crowned night-heron, are nocturnal, preferring to feed after the sun goes down.
Great Egret Many kinds of birds establish well-defended territories while nesting, but wader species often nest together in trees in colonies called rookeries. These rookeries may contain a number of different species of wader (most commonly great blue herons, great egrets, little blue herons, and white ibises) and sometimes include more than 100 nests. The nests are typically built by both parents from variously sized sticks and are often reused from year to year. The greatest diversity and abundance of herons, egrets, and other types of waders in Alabama occurs in the Coastal Plain, where open water, marshes, and swamps are most prevalent and provide ample food.
Birds of Prey
Birds of prey include the osprey, kites, eagles, hawks, and owls. Although owls (Order Strigiformes) are not closely related to the other birds of prey (Order Falconiformes), both groups have toes with sharp talons (claws) on their feet, which are used to capture their prey, and hooked beaks for tearing flesh. Most birds of prey are active during the day, but owls hunt primarily at night.
Bald Eagle In Alabama, there is only one regularly occurring eagle, the bald eagle. Ospreys are sometimes mistaken for eagles because of their large size and habit of also eating fish. After the banning of pesticides like DDT, which caused their sharp decline as a breeding species in the state in the 1960s, both the osprey and bald eagle have made remarkable recoveries. For example, in 2006, 77 nesting pairs of bald eagles were found throughout the state.
There are two species of kites and six species of hawks that are commonly found in the state. The kites (swallow-tailed kite and Mississippi kite) are aerial acrobats and often swoop down and catch their prey in treetops. They are typically found near wooded swamps and floodplain forests in the southern end of the state. Both kite species leave the state in late summer and autumn to winter in South America and return in March and April.
Hawks that regularly occur in Alabama vary in size and shape, but they can be divided into three subgroups: the relatively large, broad-winged, soaring buteos such as the red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, and broad-winged hawk; the smaller, sleeker, and faster accipiters, such as the sharp-shinned hawk and Cooper’s hawk; and the fast, tapered-winged falcons, such as the American kestrel. The red-tailed hawk, Alabama’s most common hawk, is a year-round resident that prefers open country where its favorite food, small mammals, can be found. The two accipiter species prefer to feed on birds that they catch in forested areas and at bird feeders, and the smaller American kestrel eats insects and small mammals and birds that it catches in open country.
Alabama has four owl species that regularly occur throughout the state. The most frequently heard is the barred owl, whose loud call sounds like “three hoots for you, three hoots for you aaaall.” The barred owl is a common inhabitant of moist woodlands in Alabama, especially wooded swamps. Its round head, barred breast, and brown eyes help distinguish it from the larger great horned owl, the whitish barn owl, and the considerably smaller screech owl. Birds of prey regurgitate pellets of undigested bones and fur that can be used to determine their dietary habits.
Shorebirds and Gulls
The shorebirds (Order Charadriiformes) include plovers, oystercatchers, sandpipers, gulls, and terns. Some members of this large and diverse group of birds visit Alabama to rest and refuel as they migrate through the state (for example, the solitary sandpiper, semipalmated sandpiper, and the white-rumped sandpiper) or spend the winter on the coast (for example the greater yellowlegs, lesser yellowlegs, sanderling, and dunlin). Of the 35 species of plovers and sandpipers that are regularly found in the state, only about seven species actually breed within its borders, and only one, the killdeer, commonly nests throughout the state. The other breeding species (such as the piping plover, Wilson’s plover, American oystercatcher, and willet) are mostly coastal breeders. Many of these species are threatened with extirpation (disappearance from the state) and extinction because they inhabit areas that have been altered by human growth and development.
Greater Yellowlegs Shorebirds are found mostly in open habitats and prefer wet, muddy, shallow areas, where they peck and probe for worms, insects and other invertebrates with their long, narrow beaks. The edges of rivers, ponds, lakes, and marshes as well as coastal beaches in Alabama, provide critical habitat for these transient, and often overlooked, species. When trying to identify the many similar species, overall size, bill shape and length, and leg color are important things to note. The greatest diversity of species can be found in coastal mud flat areas during the winter months, with most individuals arriving in September and October, and leaving for their arctic breeding grounds in April and May.
Recovering Pelicans in Theodore Like the shorebirds and waterfowl, the greatest abundance and diversity of gulls in Alabama occurs during the winter months; only the laughing gull is a year-round resident. The laughing gull is a common site along Alabama’s beaches and is easily identified in summer by its black head and laughing call. The other three commonly occurring species (the herring gull, ring-billed gull, and Bonaparte’s gull) arrive primarily in October and November when temperatures drop further to the north. When northern lakes freeze, Alabama often hosts a large influx of gulls, who take advantage of the state’s open waters. Most gulls have left the state by late April and May for their breeding grounds around the Great Lakes. Gulls are typically associated with large, open bodies of water such as the man-made lakes of the Tennessee River at the northern end of the state and the coastal areas of the south. Their opportunistic feeding habits, which includes feeding at landfills and shopping malls, have allowed their populations to fare well as human populations have increased.
Terns are more specialized in their feeding habits and often plummet headfirst into the water to catch fish with their sharp beaks. Nine species regularly occur in the state, and the coastal areas of Alabama offer the best opportunities to see them.
Downy Woodpecker Woodpeckers (Order Piciformes) are the carpenters of the bird world. Their chisel-like beak and long, barbed, and often sticky tongues serve as excellent tools for excavating and capturing wood-burrowing insects. Alabama is home to eight species, and all but the yellow-bellied sapsucker, a winter visitor, are year-round residents. Woodpeckers also use their bills to excavate cavities for nesting and roosting, and for drumming, an activity practiced by both sexes at the start of the spring breeding season to help establish territories and attract mates. The northern flicker, also known as the yellowhammer, is the state bird. It prefers open, park-like areas for nesting, and it is not unusual to see this species on the ground feeding on ants. The red-cockaded woodpecker, native to the longleaf pine ecosystem of the Southeast, is of conservation concern owing to habitat loss.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak The most diverse group of birds in the world and in the state is the perching birds, or passerines (Order Passeriformes). These generally small birds are known for their often-elaborate vocalizations that they use to establish territories and attract mates. In Alabama, around 140 regularly occur. Within this group are many year-round residents that inhabit yards and farms and visit feeders, including species such as the blue jay, tufted titmouse, Carolina chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren, northern mockingbird, eastern towhee, northern cardinal, eastern meadowlark, red-winged blackbird, and house finch. Others are transients, and the terrestrial and aquatic habitats of Alabama provide critical food and resting areas as these species make their long, energy-intensive, and dangerous migrations between their wintering and breeding grounds. Such species include the rose-breasted grosbeak, Swainson’s thrush, gray-cheeked thrush, bank swallow, magnolia warbler, Cape May warbler, Blackburnian warbler, and bobolink. Many passerines end their journey in Alabama and are recognized as either summer or winter residents. Summer residents spend their winter months in places such as the West Indies, Mexico, and Central and South America and include the indigo bunting, orchard oriole, blue grosbeak, summer tanager, scarlet tanager, purple martin, cliff swallow, barn swallow, and red-eyed vireo. Many of these migrants fly over the Gulf of Mexico and take off and land from the very important natural coastal habitats of Alabama. The peak periods for most species that migrate through Alabama are late March through late May in the spring and early September through early November in the autumn. Summer residents leave the state for the winter because their food becomes more difficult to find during the colder months of the year.
Species such as the yellow-rumped warbler, white-throated sparrow, and dark-eyed junco are common winter visitors, and others, such as the red-breasted nuthatch, Lapland longspur, evening grosbeak, purple finch, and pine siskin, are more erratic in their visits to the state. Their occurrence is often dependent upon the availability of seeds further north. Because most winter-resident passerines do not maintain territories during the nonbreeding season, it is not unusual to see them form flocks during the winter months.
Birdwatching Areas and Conservation
Alabama Coastal Birding Trail Sign There are many excellent areas for viewing and studying birds scattered throughout the state. For example, on the Gulf Coast, Dauphin Island, Fort Morgan and other coastal areas are favorite locations for birds and birders alike. These areas offer birders the greatest variety of species, but because of rapid development, they also have some of the most threatened habitats and birds in the state. Federal lands, such as Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in the Tennessee Valley and Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge along the border with Georgia on the Coastal Plain, provide important sanctuaries for wintering waterfowl, summer and winter residents, and transients. National forests, including Bankhead and Talladega, as well as state parks such as Monte Sano, Cheaha, Oak Mountain, and Buck’s Pocket offer much-needed natural habitat for birds and other animals and can offer exceptional areas to watch and study birds. In cooperation with several private and public partners, the state has established the Alabama Birding Trails, which encompasses hundreds of sites organized by region, such as the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail and the North Alabama Birding Trail.
Alabama has a rich natural heritage that includes a great diversity of birdlife. As the human population continues to grow, it will put continued pressure on the habitats that many of the birds and other life forms require. Currently, declines of certain bird species in Alabama are primarily due to habitat loss. Conservation efforts by governmental, nonprofit, and philanthropic agencies are necessary to protect bird habitats and to ensure the lasting diversity of Alabama’s birdlife.
- Gill, F. B. 2006. Ornithology. 3rd ed., W.H. Freeman and Company, New York, New York.
- Haggerty, T. M., et al. “Birds.” In Alabama Wildlife, Volume 1, edited by Ralph E. Mirarchi. 4 vols. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
- Imhof, T. A. Alabama Birds, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1976.
- Mirarchi, Ralph E., et al., eds. Alabama Wildlife, Volume 3: Imperiled Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds and Mammals. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
- Mirarchi, R. E., et al., eds. Alabama Wildlife, Volume 4: Conservation and Management Recommendations for Imperiled Wildlife. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
- Porter, J. F., ed. A Birder’s Guide to Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.