Texas is a birder’s dream destination, with its position on the central migration flyway and 268,597 square miles of diverse habitats that include coastal islands and estuaries, plains, prairies, deserts, plateaus, subtropical zones, and more. More than 600 bird species have been recorded in Texas, making this state the ideal spot for building a life list. But with so many birds and birding hotspots to choose from, it can be overwhelming to plan a birding trip to the Lonestar State. Whether you are interested in common Texas birds, regional specialties, or the most unusual of the state's feathered residents, knowing the best birds to watch for in Texas can help birders decide just where to go to enjoy the best of Texas birding.
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The mottled duck (Anas fulvigula) is a dabbling duck that closely resembles a mallard, but lacks the distinctive curly tail and has a paler head. The bill is bright yellow with a black spot at the rear corner, and the speculum is purple. Mottled ducks are found year-round along the Texas coast, and in summer may be more widespread throughout eastern Texas.
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The black-bellied whistling-duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis) is a tropical duck found throughout southern Texas year-round, and into central Texas during the breeding season. They’re distinctive with their pink bills and long, pale legs, and the pale eye ring and dark belly are other good identification clues. In the same areas, birders should also watch for the darker colored fulvous whistling-duck.
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At first glance the neotropic cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus) might be confused with the double-crested cormorant, which is also found in central and southern Texas, often perching on dikes, pipes, or culverts. The neotropic cormorant is smaller, however, and the bill is more grayish. During the breeding season, a white border at the back of the bill sets this cormorant apart.
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While the least tern (Sterna antillarum) is widespread along coastal areas from New Hampshire to California, the Texas gulf is an ideal spot to watch for this tiny tern and get a good comparison with its larger cousins, including the Forster’s, Caspian, royal, sandwich, and gull-billed terns. The white forehead and yellow bill are good identification clues for the least tern, as well as its diminutive size.Continue to 5 of 25 below.
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The Harris’s hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus) is a subtropical hawk easily recognized by its warm plumage tones and distinct markings, including the dark tail with a white tip. These hawks prefer desert habitats with scattered brush, and are found throughout southwestern Texas year-round. They perch in the open, often on poles, making them fairly easy to spot.
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When does a falcon act like a vulture? When it’s a crested caracara (Caracara cheriway). These tropical falcons are extensive scavengers, often sharing carcasses and carrion with vultures. They are year-round residents in central and south Texas, as well as in southern Arizona and central Florida. Birders can often spot them on the ground or on low perches, scanning for their next meal.
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Owls are often challenging to find, but the burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) is an exception, as this owl is active during the day. They are widespread throughout central and western Texas, often taking over burrows in prairie dog colonies or other burrows in dry, rocky habitats. Family groups stay together for several months, giving birders the chance to see many of these owls together.
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The eastern and southwestern panhandle of Texas is one of the best places in the country to see the lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus). These poultry-like game birds are right at home in short, dry grass plains or arid scrub oak habitats. Visiting a lek can be a great opportunity for birders to see the amazing mating dances of lesser prairie-chickens.Continue to 9 of 25 below.
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The whooping crane (Grus americana) is one of the top target birds in Texas, and this state is one of only two places in the country where these endangered birds can be spotted. Whooping cranes spend the winter in the Rockport and Port Aransas area along the Gulf, wading in estuaries and marshes. With fewer than 600 of these birds left, every birder should try to see a whooping crane.
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These birds may seem plain, but the white-tipped dove (Leptotila verreauxi) is a south Texas specialty, and is found there year-round. If birders can’t spot the white tips on the tail, the bird’s overall plainness, bold eye ring, red legs, and large size are all good clues for identifying this dove, even if it may never be considered one of the world’s most beautiful doves.
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An exceptionally hard-to-see bird in south Texas is the common pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis). Not only are these birds shy and secretive, but their superb camouflage helps them hide as they roost on the ground in thickets and wooded areas. The long tail, chestnut cheek patch, and rounded wings can help birders identify these birds when they are seen in flight or found on rural roadsides at twilight.
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Texas is the only state where birders can see three different kingfishers, and the green kingfisher (Chloroceryle americana) is the smallest of the trio. Found in south and central Texas alongside oxbow lakes and narrow streams, this bird has a heavy, distinctive bill. Deeper in south Texas, birders should also stay alert to see the ringed kingfisher, and the belted kingfisher is found throughout the state.Continue to 13 of 25 below.
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The golden-fronted woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons) is a Texas specialty bird, similar to the red-bellied woodpecker. These woodpeckers have a gold patch at the base of the bill and gold on the nape, and are found in drier woodland areas throughout the entirety of central Texas. They are often seen on the ground as well, as they search for insects.
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Hummingbird lovers won’t want to miss the buff-bellied hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis) in south Texas and along the Gulf Coast. The chestnut tail and red bill are good field marks, and these birds easily come to feeders offering hummingbird nectar. Other hummingbirds to watch for in Texas include the green violet-ear, green-breasted mango, and the familiar ruby-throated hummingbird.
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It’s hard to miss the brilliant color of the vermilion flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus). These bright and active birds are found throughout all of southern Texas, with their breeding range extending further into the central part of the state. In the winter, they can be found even further east along the coast. They are one of the reddest birds in the world, and their plumage can even seem to glow on sunny days.
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The scissor-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) is the state bird of Oklahoma, but they’re even easier to spot in Texas, where they’re found throughout all but the extreme eastern and extreme western portions of the state all summer long. These flycatchers frequently perch on wires or tall trees adjacent to open fields, and in flight their tails flash and twist as superb rudders.Continue to 17 of 25 below.
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The colorful green jay (Cyanocorax yncas) is one of the most sought-after birds to see in south Texas, with its outrageously colored plumage and bold behavior. While these birds are only found in the southern tip of the state, they’re hard to miss and readily come to feeders and water sources. Green jays often travel in family flocks, giving birders great views of multiple birds at the same time.
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Once considered the same species as the more widespread and familiar tufted titmouse, the black-crested titmouse (Baeolophus atricristatus) is a Texas specialty and found in the central part of the state, as well as in eastern Mexico. The jaunty crest is a bold black, and there is a buff wash on the flanks. These energetic, acrobatic birds prefer forested areas with mature trees.
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The golden-cheeked warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia) is endangered and can only be found during the summer breeding season in central Texas. Their bold markings can be easy to spot, and there’s no mistaking the combination of the bright face and dark throat. Birders should visit hilly areas with plentiful juniper trees to try and find this rare and highly desirable bird.
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This bird is so reminiscent of the northern cardinal that the pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus) is often called the desert cardinal, and even its rich whistling is similar to the northern cardinal’s calls. The bulbous bill, red markings, and upright crest are key field marks, and these birds are typically found in arid, brushy habitats throughout southern and western Texas.Continue to 21 of 25 below.
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Boldly colored in orange, black, and white, the altamira oriole (Icterus gularis) first looks like a hooded oriole, but its shoulder patch is orange rather than white. These are common orioles in south Texas, typically in woodlands and riparian zones. Their hanging bag-like nests are also distinct. These orioles easily come to feeders where oranges and jelly are offered.
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Most birders don’t travel to see cowbirds, but the bronzed cowbird (Molothrus aeneus) is well worth a trip to southern Texas to see the distinctive red eyes that set it apart from similar species. During territorial displays and mating dances, males puff up their neck ruff into an intimidating hunch that shows off their size and strength.
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Many birders want to see the painted bunting (Passerina ciris), one of the most colorful birds in North America, and these are widespread birds throughout all of Texas during the summer breeding season. The rainbow-hued males are impressive, but the females have more subtle beauty in their lemon-lime plumage. Visit thickets and secluded watering holes to find these shy songbirds.
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A year-round resident of much of northern, central, and western Texas, the rufous-crowned sparrow (Aimophila ruficeps) has a distinct facial pattern, and its long tail is another good identification clue. These birds are relatively reserved, but are often found in pairs in rocky habitat where they can hide in scattered brush. Hillsides, canyons, and washes are prime habitat for rufous-crowned sparrows.Continue to 25 of 25 below.
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Widespread throughout the southern and southeastern United States year-round, the northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) is easy to see in many places. This bold bird has a larger-than-life personality and a special place in the heart of Texans, however, as the state’s official state bird. Familiar to all Texans, it wouldn’t be a birding trip to Texas if the northern mockingbird wasn’t on a birder’s list.
This list is just the beginning of the great Texas birds no birder should miss, but if your birding travels don't include the Lone Star State, visit our other state-oriented bird galleries for inspiration for all your avitourism!